On the Same Page: retellings and tragedy in “Song of Achilles”

by Katherine Winton (’25) and Smriti Vijay (’25) | October 7, 2022

Art by Kylie Tran (’25)

This month, Saint Francis’s Book Club chose to read Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which follows Patroclus, a young prince in Ancient Greece. Exiled from his kingdom after causing the death of another boy, he meets a handsome demigod prince named Achilles. Although the two appear to have nothing in common, Achilles and Patroclus develop a close friendship, which blossoms into a strong romance. However, Achilles is soon called to fight in the Trojan war, fulfilling his destiny as the prophesied greatest warrior of his generation; Patroclus follows and their romance ends in a tragic finale. In this riveting retelling of Homer’s The Iliad, Miller crafts a heart-wrenching story that explores loyalty, courage, and love.

The first section of the novel centers around Patroclus’s childhood years, introducing readers to his unique dialogue. At times, the author’s sophisticated tone causes the young Patroclus’s words to feel unnatural and disrupts the novel’s flow.

That being said, the prose of the novel beautifully describes the world and era in which the characters lived. Miller’s detailed research into Ancient Greek culture is evident throughout her novel, drawing us into Patroclus and Achilles’ world. Additionally, the development of characters’ relatable qualities and weaknesses assisted readers in connecting with them. Even though some characters, like Achilles, are typically unlikeable, their complex dispositions still intrigue readers. Finally, the use of a historically unimportant character—Patroclus—as the narrator gives the story, typically told from Achilles’ view, a new perspective. This allows for a more interesting and unique reading experience. Overall, Miller executed Song of Achilles with such precision that the characters’ complex bonds lead to an enhanced reading experience.

After finishing Miller’s novel, Saint Francis Book Club members stated that they look for adventure, excitement, and suspense when reading; even more, they value the ability to connect emotionally with the story. This was achieved through the use of Patroclus as the narrator—Mary Kearns (’23) said that the use of an “exceedingly average” character provides readers a “safer, more relatable vantage point.” Had the novel been written from Achilles’s point of view, many readers would have found themselves unable to relate to his godlike qualities; however, Patroclus’s relatable traits helped readers to enter this fictional realm. Additionally, it allows Patroclus to be “given much more depth than one might expect, expounding the tragedy at the climax of the story.”

While the consensus on the development of the characters seems to be positive, Vishnu Potharaju (’24) felt that it “glorified Achilles,” and he wished it portrayed a more flawed version of the untouchable hero.

Although many retellings of classic stories are seen as “too modern” or inaccurate, Potharaju also thought that Song of Achilles takes the idea of retellings to a new level through a “more natural representation.” He highlighted the strong themes, praising the strength of the “idea that [Achilles and Patroclus] would die for each other” and how it magnifies the impact of the various relationships. Kearns added that some retellings misuse fantastic prose, disregarding the actual storytelling. However, Kearns believes Miller’s novel is incredibly successful in fulfilling readers’ standards of an immersive retelling.

Miller’s masterful writing and vivid illustrations allowed the events in the tale to evoke much deeper emotions. Anoushka Roshan (’24) remembered crying at the end of the novel, which she said doesn’t normally occur when she reads. Kearns also stated that the “tears streaming down [her] face [are] the mark of a successful story.”

We would recommend the novel Song of Achilles to anyone looking for descriptive, heart-wrenching writing. The pages contain tragic characters and relatable plot dialogue; together, these details craft an unforgettable book. If you want your heart to be torn open by a deeply moving piece of literature, this book is for you.

Trigger Warnings: abduction and human trafficking, ableism, abandonment, descriptions of vomit and blood, child abuse, human sacrifice, violence and death, pedophilia, plague, rape, self-harm, war.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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