This review was originally posted on my Goodreads account in early February 2013. I’m reposting it here, given that I refer to it not infrequently.
I was astounded by this book. Madeline Miller’s achievement cannot be overstated. Here’s a novel that’s absorbingly readable for a modern audience, but that still has the poetry of Homeric sagas. What’s most impressive to me is the balance she finds between exploring the universality of human nature throughout the ages and maintaining the innate alien-ness that I experience every time I read The Iliad—the culture of archaic Greece was so very different from this world we live in today. She lets the truth of that age live and breathe without trying to tame or update it.
And yet, I recognize myself in this story.
Far more than any of that, though—of all the authors I’ve read who’ve attempted to tackle The Iliad, Ms. Miller is the only one who almost managed to make Achilles a likeable character in my eyes.
I know this sounds like qualified praise, but for me this is an astounding achievement.
The Iliad is my favorite work of literature. I continually come back to it, to revisit this Bronze Age world of war and violent heroism. That being said, I’ve never felt anything but contempt for Achilles. He may be the “Best of the Greeks”—but at the end of the day, he’s petulant, whiny, self-absorbed, and childish.
Yes, I understand that honor was a Really Big Deal in the Bronze Age and that Achilles was truly insulted by Agamemnon; and yes, Agamemnon is imperious and overbearing—but Achilles is selfish and petty in equal measure. I can’t find within me any respect for a man who cares more about a perceived insult to his person than about saving the lives of thousands of people.
That’s a part of the alien-ness of ancient Greece, I suppose.
Given the depth and strength of my antipathy for Achilles, it’s amazing to me that, for most of The Song of Achilles, I genuinely like the guy. I have real sympathy for him. There are moments when I feel like I finally understand why he acted as he did at Troy (his Homeric hissy fit). There are moments of true revelation, when I feel like I can begin to see how he might have been justified.
Of course, ultimately, he has to do what he does in The Iliad, which means he must take it too far. The story can’t happen without it. Which means that, ultimately, he loses my sympathy again.
But I’ve never been so close to finding my way past my dislike of this character. I’m thankful for this journey.