Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2011)

Of course there are readers who gravitate towards fiction set in ancient times, with their battered Mary Renault and Robert Graves paperbacks, their beloved Rosemary Sutcliffe childhood favourites still lining their shelves.

Harper Collins, 2012

But just as there were many readers who would never pick up a western but acclaimed the wonder of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, there are many readers who haven’t picked up a classical text but who have been struck by Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.

Why Madeline Miller chose to re-tell this myth from the perspective of Patroclus might seem odd to classicists, but as Odysseus observes, it’s unpredictable which of the old tales survive.

“We are men only, a brief flare of the torch. Those to come may raise or lower us as they please. Patroclus may be such as will rise in the future.”

If Madeline Miller has anything to say about it, it would seem that’s true.

And this debut novelist knew, as soon as she discovered that she could combine her love of studying classic texts with her love of writing, that she would write from this character’s perspective.

“It was always Patroclus from the beginning.”

She was fascinated by this character who had been born a prince but lived as an exile, an ordinary person with an extraordinary love story.*

Of course other characters do play a role in the tale and there is a glossary at the back which could serve as an aid.

(It is placed at the end of the novel because the character summaries contain what will be seen as spoilers for those readers who do not know the story of Patroclus or Achilles.)

Not only gods and immortals (Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Chiron, Hera, Scamander, Thetis, and Zeus), but legendary mortals (Achilles, Aeneas, Agamemnon, Ajax, Andromache, Automedon, Briseis, Calchas, Chryses and Chryseis, Deidameia, Diomedes, Hector, Helen, Heracles, Idomeneus, Iphigenia, Lycomedes, Menelaus, Nestor, Odysseus, Paris, Patroclus, Peleus, Phoinix, Polyxena, Priam, Pyrrhus) play roles in this first novel.

2012 Oranges

One might think that, with a list this extensive, readers who are not already familiar with the tale would risk confusion, but that’s not the case. Madeline Miller has been listening to these tales since girlhood, and she can retell them with a simplicity that smacks of the familiar.

One aspect of Miller’s craft that speeds the novel’s pacing is her use of language. Not only does she focus on simple sentence structure and word usage, but she has worked so steadily at the rhythm of the prose that it seems effortless.

Consider this passage:

“Powerful strides took him swiftly up the beach. His anger was incandescent, a fire under his skin. His muscles were pulled so taut I was afraid to touch him, fearing they would snap like bowstrings. He did not stop once we reached the camp. He did not turn and speak to the men. He seized the extra tent flap covering our door and ripped it free as he passed.”

There is nothing remarkable about it at first glance, and certainly when the reader first encounters the passage it’s with a concern to discovering what happens. But take another look: the rhythm and pacing of the paragraph is as measured and taut as the novel itself.

As a novel about war, this is fitting. When “the glint of swords and armor is fish-scale beneath the sun” on the shores of Troy, one expects to move steadily through prose.

However, The Song of Achilles is also a love story. Sometimes it speaks of lighter things, and the language works for that aim as well: “Ifigenia. A tripping name, the sound of goat hooves on rock, quick, lively, lovely.”

This is not to say that the love story is without its sobering side. Patroclus’ love life is complicated by the fact that his lover is partially divine, complicated in epic and everyday ways.

“When he speaks at last, his voice is weary, and defeated. He doesn’t know how to be angry with me, either. We are like damp wood that won’t light.”
The figurative language is carefully controlled and consistently reflects images appropriate to the novel’s setting.

Frequently these are organic and sometimes they repeat. For instance, readers discover this passage later in the novel: “Only that seems large enough to hold all of my rage and grief. I want the world overturned like a bowl of eggs, smashed at my feet.”

It is an effective image on its own, but it also recalls an earlier image of Patroclus and Achilles being taught by Chiron to prepare eggs. And, similarly, there is a death of a young woman against a stone, which recalls this earlier event, the cause of Patroclus’ exile:

His head thudded dully against stone, and I saw the surprised pop of his eyes. The ground around him began to bleed.
I stared, my throat closing in horror at what I had done. I had not seen the death of a human before. Yes, the bulls, and the goats, even the bloodless gasping of fish. And I had seen it in paintings, tapestries, the black figures burned onto our platters. But I had not seen this: the rattle of it, the choke and scrabble. The smell of the flux. I fled.

Without an acquaintance with the source material, these repeated images resonate solely within the novel itself. (Perhaps someone with greater familiarity with The Iliad and other relevant mytholgies can suggest whether there The Song of Achilles is more multi-layered than it appears to be to me without that added reading experience.)

Nonetheless, the novel is as tender as it is entertaining, even for readers with very little experience of this story; The Song of Achilles takes a character who has not been afforded a central role in this tale historically and roots him in the hearts of Madeline Miller’s readers.

Solid orange

Still curious? Discusses her inspiration for writing the novel, from Bloomsbury.* Browse inside. The author’s website.  Other mythic retellings.

ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 3 of 20
Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles

Originality Rooted in a traditional tale, but with a new slant
Readability  Style, structure, form combined = relentless pacing
Author’s voice  Consistently presented as a song of the ancients, gods and immortals and mortals
Narrative structure  Chronologically told: uncomplicated and steadily progressing
Gaffes  None spotted (I am no classicist and the presentation was clean.)
Expectations  Debut novel but general consensus is admiring



  1. […] The parenthesis and the footnote, nomadreader, Sam Still Reading, Killin’ Time Reading, Buried in Print, The Literary Stew, Fizzy Thoughts, The Broke and the Bookish, Farm Lane Books Blog. Did I miss […]

  2. Buried In Print May 24, 2012 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Geosi – Sometimes we need to need more reminders than usual about certain books, before they finally make it onto our stacks. I hope you enjoy this when you get to it.

    Fence – Exactly: if we wanted the original, we’d read the original, right? Besides, even the original, in this case, was but a version. It just happens to be a version that we’ve come to think of as a standard.

    Cheryl – Me too. It reminds you that there is always another angle from which to examine a situation. I had no idea this story has been told so many ways, but reading this version certainly makes me curious about other points-of-view too.

  3. Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous May 19, 2012 at 10:26 am - Reply

    I love old stories reimagined from a new point of view. Sounds intriguing!

  4. Fence May 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm - Reply

    I really enjoyed the writing in this book. It veered quite a bit from the source material, I thought, but I’m not overly familiar with the Iliad so it didn’t bother me too much. Besides, i like adaptations to be just that 🙂

  5. Geosi May 16, 2012 at 5:10 am - Reply

    Have read lots of great reviews of this book. The more I do, the more I know I need to read this.

  6. Buried In Print May 15, 2012 at 6:55 am - Reply

    Danielle – I’ve never read The Iliad; I’d intended to at least read a retelling before reading this novel, but I enjoyed it all the same, and might return to the original after all…except I’d miss Patroclus!

    Jessica – That happened to me with Jo Walton’s latest. I finally had to snap up a copy because it was like it was coming at me from all reading directions!

    Sandra – The reason I keep returning to the Orange list is that it pulls me in unexpected directions, just as you were pulled to Miller’s novel; it regularly adds new writers to my list of favourites and I’m always thrilled when the longlist is announced.

    Iris – I do hope they add it to their collection, but at least you’ve been able to find more of this year’s Orange books than last year’s!

    Carrie – Even though everybody seemed to be saying how un-put-down-able it was, I really wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it as much as they did either, but I found it wholly entertaining. I think it was on my stack for about two days, even though the stack is rather unmanageable these days.

    Vasilly – I think you’ll really enjoy it, and it’s lighter for lugging about than our Game of Thrones.

    Aarti – Here’s hoping a copy finds its way to you soon. I’m glad that I wasn’t all that familiar with the story because it really swept me away. But, still, part of me is curious how it would read if I had that previous reading experience.

    Shivanee – My copy was borrowed, but I do want my own copy of it and I think you’d be pleased to own it. As pre-occupied as I was with “what happens”, I think one could spend a good chunk of time examining the way that she has structured her tale (especially the pacing) and the crafting of individual passages. You could probably do that on a first reading since you’re so familiar with the tales, but I would definitely have to re-read to properly pay attention to that! (I got the three orange colour swatches last year when I was reading through the 2011 longlist; this shade is the middle one, the one that I find myself using most often. But of course it’s all subjective, my lighter shade of orange could be the next reader’s deepest orange!)

  7. Shivanee @ Novel Niche May 15, 2012 at 2:24 am - Reply

    *promptly adds this book to to-be-read shelf* Like Iris, I’d wager that my local library won’t have a copy of this either, but from your review, I’m entirely willing to acquire my own.

    I adored The Iliad and The Odyssey as a young girl. In my own way, I’ve been thinking about these stories for more than half my life, now. I think they were among my introduction to the power and magic of mythos, the undeniable pull of legends on parchment. The excerpts you’ve shared show this sort of… rhythmic grace to the language that isn’t in the slightest bit verbose, and I love that.

    (I love your Orange Nominee colour-grading scheme! Is it of your own invention? 🙂 )

  8. Aarti May 14, 2012 at 11:04 pm - Reply

    I’ve had this on my wish list for some time. I love the title, I love the cover, and I love the premise of it. So glad to learn that you loved the STORY 🙂

  9. Vasilly May 14, 2012 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    I can’t wait to read this one! It sounds amazing.

  10. nomadreader May 14, 2012 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would. I must have read The Iliad at some point because I realized I remembered several details I thought I didn’t know. Overall, I thought the pace and story were quite good, but I, too, am curious if familiarity with the source material added layers of meaning.

  11. Iris May 14, 2012 at 11:11 am - Reply

    I really want to read this one, but my library does not own it 🙁 Perhaps that will change in time..

  12. Sandra May 14, 2012 at 10:44 am - Reply

    I read this book recently and it is my favourite read for the spring. I too am interested in reading more work based on the Iliad and/or The Odyssey. This is not something I would have read had your discussion of Orange Prize listed books not directed me to it. Thank you.

  13. jessicabookworm May 14, 2012 at 4:02 am - Reply

    I’ve not read a bad review of this book yet, the more I read about it the more I need to read it!

  14. Danielle May 14, 2012 at 12:10 am - Reply

    I’m very much enjoying this–will finish in the next few days. It has been so long since I’ve read either the Iliad or anything about Greek myths, so I feel like I am coming at the story with no background, but it doesn’t seem to matter at all–it is thoroughly engrossing. I’m just coming up to the battle scenes. Now I want to read the Iliad again…

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'