Singing the Praises of Song Of Achilles… Mostly


So I mentioned in my last post that I am a tricky customer… well you are about to find out just how tricky a customer I can be. Because, despite what follows in this review, I actually really liked this book. I thought it was very compelling, with great characters and a sweet romance. And yes, it made me cry.

For that reason (and I’m gonna break with tradition by saying this now) I gave this book 4/5 bananas:


However, I studied Classics at uni and this didn’t quite match up with my understanding of the history or literature. Now  this isn’t anything personal, I just don’t know if there’s ever a case where two classicists agree on any interpretation (at least in my experience 😉 )

Let’s start with some of the issues I had with the book as an interpretation of the Iliad. Some of my issues were merely niggling ones- like Patroclus not being a warrior (which made no sense because Miller had to adhere to the myth of having him kill Sarpedon)- yes he was gentle (epios) but in Greek terms that also means being harsh with your enemy. Little things- like explaining supplication and the blatant (and yet slightly out of place) nod to hubris also got on my wick as well. Then there were the slightly bigger issues- like the fact that Achilles really, really didn’t remind me of the Achilles of the Iliad- sorry but he’s just not that nice!– in order to make the plot still work, the author had to give him a personality transplant halfway through. Even then, his menis seemed more like a temper tantrum than the rage of someone who was practically a demi-god.

So that wasn’t great- but it wasn’t my biggest problem. Because from a historical perspective, I thought the way Patroclus saved Briseis was a *fundamental* misunderstanding of Greek culture. There is *no way* that they would have been rescuing the women from Agamemnon’s harem- for historical accuracy’s sake I have to point out that Greek culture was so misogynistic that it wouldn’t have been considered cheating on a male partner to be with a woman- being with a woman didn’t count. Which brings me onto another issue- gay relationships and pederasty (now known as paedophilia) were super common and totally socially acceptable- because according to some social commentators being with a man who was your equal was seen as the only way you could actually experience love- again women just didn’t count.

Still, I did like the humanising of the myth and liked how the gods weren’t missed out (as they are in so many retellings). And for the most part, I really have to praise this as a wonderful vision of the story and say that it has a brilliant power to evoke emotions. Overall, there were aspects I really loved about Song of Achilles, I just think that I will always struggle with retellings of the Iliad.

Phew- I feel bad after all that! Well- am I the only one that has difficulty with some retellings? Am I the only one that really struggles with this? Let me know in the comments!


39 thoughts on “Singing the Praises of Song Of Achilles… Mostly

  1. I have not read the original Iliad – but I have read abridged versions and seen a couple movies – and I totally agree, that unless you’re going to set a retelling in, say, an alternate history or a dystopian future or something like that – then you *have* to keep the history accurate. Even the parts you don’t like. Otherwise you’re not properly explaining/lecturing the values/culture of that civilization (whether it’s all nice or a mix of pros-and-cons), and that creates prejudices/misconceptions in generations down the line.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ahh thank you!! Exactly!! I think that her getting the history so of base really bothered me, cos I’ve just seen people glorify Greek culture so often in the past- don’t get me wrong I studied it for half of my degree and I found it fascinating- but the truth is it wasn’t pretty. Yeah precisely- I think there’s a lot of positive prejudices about Greek culture by people that want to create society in the Hellenist image- unfortunately they don’t understand what that actually means. Thanks so much for your insightful comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. When they brought out those “Clash of the…” movies with Sam Worthington, I was so excited, and I know that they didn’t say this is based on any particular ancient Greek story…I was still so annoyed with what they did with it, because I LOVE Ancient Greece. They needed more of the Gods in it!lol

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m studying Classics at the moment, and I see what you mean: Context is crucial. The way ancient Greek culture operated is so fundamentally different from how our culture operates. Of course, various elements of various stories are up to interpretation, but more often than not, there is historical basis behind classic works. There are meanings there that are concrete, and others that are open. Great points, even though I haven’t read the book!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely- that’s why I can understand some of the literary interpretations a bit more- although with changing Achilles character she makes a point of noting that “no one will remember how he is” (aka in her interpretation)- because she knows her interpretation is way off base. Yeah absolutely- and thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah, I get annoyed by similar problems in retellings. I do love a good author who reinterprets a story or myth, but such reinterpretations can be easily mishandled. And any kind of inaccuracy drives me crazy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I have like very limited knowledge on most European/non-Asian history/classics/mythology so a lot of retellings work just fine with me, mostly because I have no idea what the “real story” is and often can’t be bothered to cross-reference. I’m glad to see that you’ve given this a high-ish rating, though, despite the problems you had with it – I’ve heard pretty much only great things about it and I’ll definitely pick it up when I feel like crying. It seems like this book sends everyone into tears. 😛

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  6. An excellent critique! Seeing the protagonist undergo a complete personality flip halfway through the story would possibly kill me through exasperation overdose. I’m glad that the rest of the book made up for its historical and character-related flaws, though. =)

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  7. Lol. Don’t feel bad about all that. I think it’s good to admit you enjoyed something but still point out its faults. So far, your review is the first one I’ve seen that make these points about certain errors in the retelling. I haven’t yet read Song of Achilles, but I’d like to.
    As for retellings, I don’t read many of them and the ones I do read, I’m not so familiar with the source material to notice if anything is right or wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aww thank you!! Yeah I definitely did enjoy it- but as you can see it wasn’t perfect for me. That said I do recommend it- and hope you’ll like it! (more even than I did!)
      Yeah I think not being familiar with the source material can make it so much easier! I can also cope with things that are more of a nod to the original or that are simple stories that have been retold so many times! (aka fairytale retellings)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wahh, this was really interesting. It definitely brings to light some of the things that a lot of peepz would probably take for granted and not even know. I have this book in my TBR and am definitely excited to give this a shot! Awesome review. 😀

    – Lashaan

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Glad you liked the book, even if you did have issues with the historical accuracy. I didn’t know anything about the history & the story of The Iliad when I read it, so I really enjoyed it and didn’t have anything to compare it to.
    After I read Song of Achilles I went on to read The Iliad and had way more respect for Madeline Miller! That must’ve been such a difficult job to adapt & modernize The Iliad and the story of Patroclus & Achilles. I learned a lot from reading these books and also surfing Wikipedia while reading as well.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, after reading The Odyssey in high school and hating it, I could’ve sworn that I never would’ve willingly picked up Homer again! But The Song of Achilles changed my mind, and I’m glad that it did! My next adventure in ancient Greece is going to be a re-read of The Odyssey. I really enjoyed the character of Odysseus in The Song of Achilles so I’m interested to hear his story now that I’m older and can hopefully appreciate it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ahh that’s good that this changed your mind then!! Still not found a good version of the Odyssey, even though I’ve read large sections of it, I’ve still not read it all! But anyway, they’re presumably by different authors, so it’s quite different in style to the Iliad. Let me know if you find a good version of the Odyssey!! yeah he’s a fascinating character- I’ve always loved him!!

          Liked by 1 person

  10. I have only read parts of the Iliad and I’m not too familiar with the culture so I could not have been bothered by those points but now I feel a bit cheated. I heard the author had respected the original work and the customs, so it’s a bit disappointing. I enjoyed the story, especially the writing and Patroclus’s character but the war bored me to death and my lack of concern for Achilles did not help me get more involved in the story. Don’t feel bad at all, I love you for pointing out those issues! Fab review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haha yeah- it’s still a good book, and she got a fair amount of it right… but I’m a really really tricky customer- she obviously had every right to interpret bits of it, but I couldn’t help but notice and it bothered me! (I’m a purist!!) It does depend what you consider to be respecting the customs- because a lot of what she wrote was accurate. That said, it is a common mistake to overlook the seriously bad sides of Greek culture and hold it up as this paradigm of liberty- when it really wasn’t! I think she did that in the way she addressed women and gay rights. Yeah it is a really enjoyable story and did like what she did with Patroclus. Thank you!! 🙂


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