In Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, the tale of Achilles is heard from the mouth of his beloved companion, Patroclus. The marvel of the book for this reader is how gracefully it unites its varied strains into a single voice. That voice is then wonderfully played by Frazer Douglas in the audiobook.
Just as Achilles is son of a man but also son of a goddess…
Just as Achilles is prophesied to have a short life but immortal glory or a dimmer brilliance and a greater longevity…
Just as Achilles is known for his wrath but he tends a love for kind-hearted Patroclus–
So the book is a contemporary fantasy about ancient myths…
So it testifies to scholarly research and boasts the originality of a literary talent…
So it uses Patroclus’ hushed self-consciousness to magnify the roaring effusion of Achilles’ glory.
There are so many things to be said for the book that I can do no better than to offer my recommendation. Nonetheless, perhaps I can indicate some of those things by comparisons to other works of fiction.
Like Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Miller’s Song wastes no words but provides a hard, clear view of each event that passes in the plot.
Like Homer’s Iliad, it shows the glory of the heroes’ godlike combat, while at the same time knowing how that glory can and cannot overshadow the ugliness of war.
Like C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, it uses the voice of human vulnerability to speak of things wondrous and divine.
Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it marvels over magic that is a natural part of its world.
Like Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, it does not shy from detailing the strategy and savagery of battle.
Like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, it does not neglect the society in which the events take place.
One other thing, I would mention: Like Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, or even more so, it does not shy from narrating the sexual intercourse between its main characters. Song takes the view of later Greek tradition, as I understand it, that Achilles and Patroclus were not just beloved companions, that is to say, friends, but indeed homosexual lovers. Their intercourse is narrated or referred to about a half-dozen times.
On the one hand, the descriptions of their intercourse, while emotionally intense, are to my mind not lurid. Achilles and Patroclus act as proper persons in their own right, not as functions of an ideology of homosexual advocacy, nor as subjects for sexual exploitation. The narrative treats their sexual behavior as part of their humanity, regardless of whether the reader thinks of that behavior as blameless, like the men themselves, or blameworthy, like most of society in the novel. I have nothing more to say about their homosexuality in the confines of this review, either in favor of it or against it.
On the other hand, the depictions of their intercourse are frank, like the depictions of nudity in classical Greek painting and sculpture. Their occurrence cannot be denied. However, there is at least this one difference and perhaps others: classical Greek depictions of nudity display a beauty that must be respected but need not be secret, the beauty of the human form; but depictions of sexual intercourse display a sacred thing that is not respected unless it is secret, a secret between two lovers, the sacred beauty of giving one’s sexuality to another person and receiving that other person’s in return.
Fictional characters though they are, and somewhat reserved though the depictions are, the Song displays some of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ secrets, and I take that to be a fault. After mentioning that one fault, I bring the review of Madeline Miller’s stupendous work, The Song of Achilles, to a close.