Madeline Miller’s ‘ The Song of Achilles’ has been lauded and nominated already for the Orange Prize. It is a brilliant re-telling of the Achilles legend, drawing on the Iliad, but more so on the other stories which grew up about the Greeks’ greatest hero. His training by Chiron the centaur and the attempt by his mother to save his life by disguising him as a dancing girl form large tracts of the plot. It is only in the last third of the book that the familiar tale of dishonour and revenge unfolds.
Unlike Mary Renault when seeking to reconstruct the ancient world Miller takes the religious background wholly seriously- her introduction of Thetis, Achilles’ mother, is one of the most beautiful and chilling passages in the entire book!
It is in her handling of the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus, that veers most into the modern world, and rejects the classical one. In a wholly convincing account of a young love affair, which has respect, affection and passion at its core, she humanises and makes contemporary a relationship which is entirely other in the Iliad. It works, but in turning Patroclus from a good, but vulnerable and utterly mortal hero, who has his one glorious day of battle before death takes him, it does replace a tantalising military ethic with a more mundane romantic one.
But that makes no difference to the excellence of this book, which will undoubtedly join Mary Renault on all reading lists for classical studies courses at all levels, and is a great tale, well re-told.