Greek Myth Retelling Readathon – Part 3: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: arguably the story that spearheaded the most recent trend of Greek myth retellings. This is the story of young prince Patroclus, who, after being disowned by his own father, is sent to live in a foreign court where he befriends Achilles. The two grow up together and love blossoms between them… only to be overshadowed by the Greek war against Troy. Achilles has a choice – to either stay home and live a long life in obscurity, or fight at Troy and die young but in everlasting glory. We all know what he chooses.

I came to this soon after reading The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – a complex and gritty retelling of many of the same events as in this book, but which focuses on the perspective of enslaved women in the Greek camp. In direct comparison, this book felt very much lighter, a little simpler, and perhaps even idealistic, and I did rather miss the more complex version of the same events.

I’m really wary of being too hard on The Song of Achilles. It is wonderfully well constructed and kept me engaged throughout, and it’s also touched a lot of people and is influential in the wider sphere of Greek myth retellings. It’s also important to recognise that The Song of Achilles has both different themes and a different audience to The Silence of the Girls. It is a young adult story, with themes around Patroclus’ and Achilles’ coming of age, their love, bravery, pride, and sacrifice. As such, young love in all its idealistic glory, and the tragedy of this particular young love, is naturally central.

What I’m coming around to, ruminating on my response to this book, is that the simplicity of this young love is probably less to my reading taste than something with more layers to it. I found the extent to which Patroclus orbits about Achilles, and the extent to which his love for him is portrayed as a constant which nothing – no amount of pride or ridiculous behaviour on Achilles’ part – could affect, a little grating. It didn’t grip my emotions enough for the finale to really floor me, and there weren’t enough other themes in there to peak my interest where the central theme (for me) lacked.

So yes it is a muted response from me on this retelling, but this comes with the very heavy caveat that this is due to my personal reading preferences and mood at this time. For those who love the book, I do get why. There’s a sweetness to the romance, a pace towards inevitable tragedy, and a novelty to viewing a famous story through a different and unapologetic lens, which together merit this book’s good reputation.

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