Featuring on a podcast! And Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles
So, most of you know I studied English Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Dundee.
When I was there I met some of the kindest and most talented people you could possibly hope to meet in life, two of which are my friends Emily and Rebecca. Combining their love for literature and their love for chat, the pair recently created a podcast called 'Infatuated' where they discuss what book they are infatuated with that week. Every time I listen to an episode, I immediately want to go out and buy whatever books they are talking about - they're just that engaging and funny. (The Rebecca's Rants segment will never not be my favourite thing.)
Their podcast has also been super welcome to me because I've really missed having book chats with them since lockdown began, so it's been really nice to listen to the two of them chatting books (hi miss you both). Their passion for what they read and for what they do has always reignited my own love for creativity and I'm always left feeling inspired to write or read, or both.
Before lockdown, obviously, we used to have book chats and I had mentioned a book that had recently devastated me (in a good way). The book in question was Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, and I still class it as one of the best books I have ever read. I had gushed about it to Emily so much that she decided to read it, and ended up adoring it also (and crying too - sorry Emily). Rebecca went on to read it afterwards but she did not shed a tear (she claims that is because she already knew the ending but it still scares me how could you not Rebecca?! She said she was close, though, so I'll give her that.)
Now, as is the nature of the 'Infatuated' podcast, Emily decided to bring her love for TSOA to the podcast - and she asked me to share some of my thoughts for the episode! So that was super exciting, and thanks to both Rebecca and Emily for asking me to be a part of it!
You won't hear my lovely, soothing voice though (trust me, you don't want to) BUT you will get to hear my gushing, arguably articulated much better by Emily and Rebecca. And if you're reading my blog then you already like that sort of thing, so why not go listen to it in the far more entertaining ways of Emily and Rebecca? To listen, just click here.
Obviously, I had to write down my ideas to send on to Emily for the podcast and uh, I got a bit carried away. As Emily says in the podcast, 'I asked her for her thoughts, and she sent me a 2500 word essay'. I laughed out loud at that part but I can't help it, I love to talk far too much, ESPECIALLY when it's about a book I love.
I have readjusted this essay ever so slightly for this post so it reads as more of a blog post (but fair warning, it is still pretty random and rambly but that's what a blog is, right?). So, really, take this post as a two-in-one type deal: as a shoutout to the 'Infatuated' podcast for featuring my thoughts, and another book discussion post on The Song of Achilles.
Once you've read, make sure you have a listen to the 'Infatuated' podcast, linked below and above, as I promise you won't regret it and you'll probably end up making a hefty online book order.
When I first picked up The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I had no idea how special the book would become to me. I actually got gifted it at Christmas two years ago, as I had asked for Miller’s second Greek retelling book Circe, and my Dad decided to pick up The Song of Achilles as well as they were obviously linked. (Shoutout and thanks to my dad).
Realising that The Song of Achilles was written first, I decided to read that before opening Circe. And honestly, I was not ready for it. It’s up there as one of the best books I have ever read. It completely rekindled a childhood love of mythology, and was the catalyst to my purchasing of many more Greek retellings. Luckily for me, and I’d argue since Miller, it has become a bit of a trend in the bookish world. Walk into Waterstones, and there’s always a new Greek retelling on the shelves.
I trusted Miller to tell me the tales of Greece in a modern way because of her background. With a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as an education at the Yale School of Drama, who would be a better authority on the tales of Greece with the talent to tell it in a enthralling and captivating way? I don’t know about you guys, but for me, I always have a quick nosy at the author’s background to see where they came from and what inspired them. It’s very telling.
So Miller. A trusted author, and the one I chose to help me dive back into mythology. Before time of reading, I really could only remember stories of Icarus, the Minotaur and of Achilles’ heel (though this doesn't even come up in the book). I think that’s what most people think of when they think of Greek mythology but are out of practice with its stories, right?
So yes. Miller’s background, in both knowledge and dramatic flair, is the essential component to why I love this book SO much. I mentioned earlier that I had went on to reading other modern Greek retellings, but none of them can compare with Miller’s even still. Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes, or Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, are just some of the books I went on to read, for those of you wondering. Though they are excellent reads in their own merit, they did not quite capture me in the way Miller’s did.
And I put that down to her lyrical writing.
When you read Miller’s book, it’s like reading a modern version of the Odyssey (in my head). I will bring in Stephen Fry’s book here to compare. His are short little snippets of Greek stories, designed to be easily consumed and easily understood. That’s not what I’m about. I want to feel as if I’m reading mythology, you know? But I also want to stay awake – which is where Miller’s modern twist on it all comes in. It’s not like reading the classics (although I personally, an English lit grad, love the classics but know many people who aren’t that way inclined who are put off ‘old English’ books for example for making them fall asleep). You won’t be bored reading this classic tale. Every chapter ends with a dramatic sentence that makes you HAVE to flip over to the next one, even when you promised yourself that was you done. I LOVE it when author’s do that, when they just leave that wee snare at the end to capture you and catapult you over into the next part of the story.
But her writing is also lyrical in that it’s beautiful. I can envision everything perfectly and clearly – she can transport you to Ancient Greece with words alone.
Another thing I would say in comparison with Stephen Fry’s is dialogue. In his, Stephen Fry writes his characters very ‘Westernised’ I’d argue – they talk as though they live in present day. It was really jarring, there’s not much else to say for it. Miller stays true to the times, and I guess she’d have to given her education background, and all her dialogue is impactful and true to Ancient Greece.
And though her novel is woven with beautiful lyrical diction, she’s also short and sweet. She doesn’t draw out the dramatic moments – and that’s somehow all the more devastating. She actually manages to break your heart by using very little words.
Honestly, in my own writing, I would love to have the same sort of lyrical storytelling that Miller employs. It’s actually really quite a hard thing to put into words – I really feel you just have to read the book to understand what I mean. And what’s so clever about that, is that back in Ancient Greece times, these stories were told mostly through song and the stories of heroes was passed down through the generations through song. So it’s a subtle tradition she’s stuck to, and so incredibly well done and powerful. And I guess that’s where the title The Song of Achilles comes in.
Ugh man. I love this woman’s writing so much.
And then we get to characterisation. Patroclus and Achilles. For one, it’s incredibly cool that Miller chooses characters that are typically underrepresented in the classics and gives them a voice (i.e. Patroclus and Circe).
Though it’s entitled The Song of Achilles, the book follows the hero’s closest ‘friend’ Patroclus, who later becomes his lover and the only person he trusts in this world. There’s a lot of debate between academics over Achilles and Patroclus and whether they were lovers or just really close friends – though I’d imagine if you got your ashes mixed together when you died in an urn you’re probably not platonic (no spoilers but also kind of a spoiler- I mean the story is years old and well known). So Miller obviously sides with those who believed them to be lovers (me too). And that’s what the book is about, really – seeing the hero from an entirely different, untold perspective. Through the eyes of a lover, one who was by his side from a very young age up until the end (I won’t say any more about the ending because HI STILL DEVASTATED OVER HERE TWO YEARS LATER EVEN THOUGH EVERYONE KNOWS THE ENDING BUT IT WAS LITERALLY HEART BREAKING GUT WRENCHING EVERY OTHER CLICHÉ YOU WANT TO THROW IN THERE I FELT THAT). The book should come with a warning on its cover for heartbreak. Anyway.
What really got me was Miller’s portrayal of their relationship. It was so innocent and naïve – you got to watch them meet and grow up together from a young age, discover their feelings for one another, whilst also constantly trying to run away from Achilles’ destiny with the Fates. I have to say, that got really annoying in the book to read, purely because you were rooting for them the whole time but knew that they were doomed. But that was the belief of the times in mythology. However for me it threw up some interesting questions about fate – could Achilles really not have changed his fate? Was it his fate because everyone had decided it was his and it was the role he was meant to play? Did it have to end the way that it did?
Also Patroclus. His depiction makes the ending all the more. Not much of a fighter, he learns how to help and heal those hurt in battle. Though he starts off sketchy with the accidental murder of a boy and is then exiled to where his journey with Achilles starts, he throughout the book shows himself to be the more morally sound than the great hero Achilles. However, I wouldn’t hold that against Achilles – as again, he had the crushing weight of the Fates resting on his shoulders, placed upon him by everyone he knew.
Honestly, it was heart-breaking reading these two boys just wanting to be together whilst everything seemed determined to break them apart. Especially as you really became attached to them for different reasons.
There was another interesting point – honour and glory. This was so important to the heroes of Ancient Greece, and for a modern day reader, it was really frustrating to read about. Risk your love and your whole life, for glory amongst men? That was what Achilles was ‘destined’ for. When he did have the chance to ‘give up’ his fate and live on with Patroclus, he couldn’t handle the thought of people forgetting him – the great Achilles. All I remember thinking when reading was that he had given up love for admiration of men who would run from the same Fate. But Achilles was young and bred and brought up for war, and as a future hero, taught that honour and glory above else were the more important things in life.
Another thing I’d say is that you know all Greek stories are tragedies and lessons therein. And man, was this one the tragedy of all. Miller adding that layer of meeting the lover, making him so good, and making them meet as young boys and grow up together and try and run away from the Fates whilst realising they couldn’t, was heart-breaking. She did it so well, adding in that extra layer of emotion. I mean I didn’t really need it, thanks, as I genuinely mourned these characters for days. Again, proceed with caution if you go to read The Song of Achilles.
But Achilles did, in the end, pick honour. And he lost everything. And it was only when he lost everything, that he realised that fleeting fame, or even fame down through the ages, wasn’t the most important. If you go on to read Circe there is a brief crossover where we hear from Achilles and Patroclus in the underworld and Miller also confirms this lesson learnt, with Achilles wishing he hadn’t chased glory and instead had a life with Patroclus. I mean, she tried to make it up to us but IT DOESN’T HELP US MADELINE THEY ARE STILL DEAD.
I am back.
Also as a random aside, I loved the Aristos Achaion thing. I have no more to say on that, I just loved the phrase and genuinely had it in my Instagram bio for ages because I am sad.
Also that moment with Achilles’ mother and Patroclus’ soul being trapped…again, I don’t know how much I can say in case people have not read the book and would like to but MAN. Those few pages before it all, with Patroclus telling Achilles’ mother about his entire life – you guessed it, heart-breaking. And that delivered us this line from Patroclus: “I am made of memories.” And that genuine moment between Achilles’ mother and Patroclus, who up until that point had been nothing shy of awful.
Also let's talk about that ending.
What do we think of the afterlife portrayal by Madeline Miller? When I finished the book, I have to say I wasn’t satisfied and went seeking other people’s opinions to confirm that I was not alone. It was a tragedy, we always knew that, so we always knew there was going to be death, but the modern day reader in me still wanted there to be some happy ending – and Madeline Miller as modern day writer seemed to try and give us that. And again, in Circe, like I mentioned earlier, we hear of Patroclus and Achilles again so they aren’t GONE as such. But I don’t know, and Emily I’d love to hear your thoughts on that one. Was the ending happy, or sad?
‘In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood, like a hundred golden urns pouring out the sun.’
That simile at the end sure SOUNDS happy right, with the likeness to the sun and the sheer intensity of them meeting and finding each other in the underworld. But I still felt kind of – hollow at the end? Is that the word? I think it’s the ‘de-personification’ (am I making up words) of Patroclus and Achilles. Reduced to nothing but shadows, amongst other shadows, reaching out to each other in that hopeless and heavy world of other shadows. It’s a bitter sweet ending, I think it’s actually the definition of a bitter sweet ending. As time has went on, the more I’m inclined to lean towards it being a happy ending – I mean they found each other right? But maybe I also want it to be a happy ending for my pure wee shattered heart. Who knows? There’s just something that doesn’t sit right with me either – are they just wisps of smoke, who can’t really touch each other or hold each other? How much comfort can it be? I suppose if they had never found each other, or Achilles’ mother had never freed Patroclus to the underworld as well, it would have been much much worse (and who thought that was going to happen by the way. I genuinely think if Madeline Miller hadn’t made that decision I would have HATED the book – and she easily could have. Actually yes, that was the turning point for me. I remember feeling so sad and gutted over the deaths, and then when I saw Patroclus struggling to get to the Underworld and couldn’t even be reunited with Achilles there, all I remember thinking was ‘MILLER DON’T DO THIS’. Because THAT would have been even worse. So maybe I’ll change my answer and say yes, it was a happy ending, because the alternative could have been so much worse.) And that is my ramble that does not do justice to why this book is so incredible. But that's that! Thanks so much again to Emily and Rebecca for asking for my thoughts on this incredible, heart-breaking, enthralling book and for featuring them on their incredible 'Infatuated' podcast. Love and miss you both and can’t wait to see you again soon!
In case you missed the link to 'Infatuated' above, click here to have a listen.
Thanks for reading as always - bye for now!