Book Review: The Song of Achilles



Image via Goodreads

Rating: 5 out of 5

I really hope you’re paying attention right now, because this book just became one of my favorites of all time. Of. All. Time. No novel has blown my mind this hard since 1984, and honestly, I doubt that I will read another book this year that can top this one. It’s THAT good.

That being said, not everyone will feel the same way. You have to be a die-hard fan of Homer’s Iliad and Ancient Greek literature in general to truly appreciate Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. I reviewed the Iliad a couple weeks ago, and when I found out that Miller was garnering a ton of great press for this adaptation, I was hooked.

Miller deserves every fabulous review, because she has the credentials. With a BA and MA in Classics and a current position teaching Latin and Ancient Greek, needless to say, she knows her stuff. And as someone who also minored in Classics and spent two years studying Latin, I believe that I have the right to say that she knows her stuff.

The Song of Achilles is told from Patroclus’ perspective. Patroclus was a Greek prince who was a suitor of Helen’s as a young boy. After he unintentionally murders a bully, he is exiled to Phthia, King Peleus’ domain. Peleus is Achilles’ mortal father, and the sea-nymph goddess Thetis is his immortal mother. Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship progresses over time from best friends to lovers.

Yes, if you are uncomfortable reading about homosexual relationships, then this book is not for you. However, if you love Ancient Greek literature, then this interpretation of the Iliad will not surprise you.

In the Iliad, Achilles is aware that he will die in the war, due to his mother’s knowledge of prophecy. After his slave-girl Briseis is stolen from him by King Agamemnon, Achilles refuses to fight. After many Greeks die, Patroclus agrees to fight in Achilles’ armor to trick the Trojans into submission.

Tragically, he is killed by Trojan prince Hector, and Patroclus’ death is the reason why Achilles resumes fighting. In his fiery rage, Achilles murders Hector and drags his body from his chariot around Troy. Hector’s brother Paris ends up killing Achilles, and his ashes are mixed and buried with those of Patroclus.

The 2004 movie “Troy” avoids offending conservative viewers by portraying the two men as cousins, and Briseis as Achilles’ love interest. Miller’s interpretation is much more plausible, given what other Ancient Greek writers like Plato and Aeschylus have expressed. Again, sexuality back then was nothing like it is now: it was typical for Greek men to take both male lovers and female wives.

I would encourage anyone who has an open mind to read this book, as it is one of the best love stories I’ve ever read. It was even more heart-breaking, because I knew how it all would end. As much I wanted to keep reading, I didn’t want these two characters to meet their doom–and I couldn’t help but cry when they did.

The writing is superb, reflecting the poetry of the Iliad. Character development was perfect, as I fell in love with Achilles and Patroclus as they were falling in love with each other. And other than a couple anachronisms, I loved how Miller inserted tidbits of Greek vocabulary and other myths to appeal to Iliad fans and educate those unfamiliar with the tale.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. I imagine one day college students will be reading The Song of Achilles right along with the Iliad in their Classics courses. And if it were up to me, Miller’s next book should be an adaptation of Homer’s equally famous sequel Odyssey. One can hope!

In Defense of Classical Studies

The Spartans would know exactly how to shut Rush up!

I have never liked Rush Limbaugh: he’s an ignorant, racist, sexist, homophobic embarrassment of conservatives everywhere. Usually I don’t give him the time of day, but yesterday I read something on his website that infuriated me to no end. It’s called “Deciphering the Sad-Sack Story of a Classical Studies Scholar.”

In the transcript he insults a Wall Street Protester who as a Classical Studies graduate feels hopeless in this recession. He asserts that her degree is useless and calls her “Miss Brain-dead.” He doesn’t even seem to know what Classical Studies entails:

What the hell is Classical Studies?  What classics are studied?  Or, is it learning how to study in a classical way?  Or is it learning how to study in a classy as opposed to unclassy way?

If you aren’t pissed yet, keep reading:

But most of these majors are useless, such as black women studies, women’s studies, whatever studies.

So according to Rush, not only are Greek and Latin scholars worthless, but also anyone who doesn’t worship white male Republicans like himself. I don’t know which majors are acceptable to him, but if you don’t pick one he likes, apparently you’re a socialist.

Since Rush has obviously the intellectual capacity of a dung beetle, I’ll spell it out for him. Because as a Classical Studies minor who spent two years studying Latin and ancient Greek/Roman literature, I’d like to clarify that not only am I highly employable, I have skills the average college graduate could use:

Classical Studies makes you a better reader, writer, and thinker. I have an excellent vocabulary, because I understand the Latin etymologies of English words. This is essential in my job, because I teach high school students how to make educated guesses when they’re faced with an SAT word they don’t know. The analytic skills needed to translate Latin, or any language for that matter, is similar to solving a math problem: you fit together the words one step at a time and the result is achieving a higher level of knowledge–a level Rush can’t even comprehend, let alone reach.

Classical Studies is not dead. If anyone tells me Latin is a dead language one more time, I’m going to go Catullus on their ass. Latin lives in all the Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.) and English to a great extent. The ancient Greeks and Romans created Western civilization as we know it: architecture, art, politics, education, philosophy, the list goes on and on. Next time Rush gushes over an American monument like the White House or references “the Founding Fathers” or “American democracy,” he should thank Pericles and Augustus instead of Reagan and Bush.

Classical Studies is what you make it. Every college grad is struggling right now. I know engineers who can’t get jobs, so don’t make the excuse that it’s all your fault if you picked a major in the humanities or social sciences. We are all victims of this economy, but Rush is too rich to have any pity for the middle class man or woman. That being said, Classical Studies scholars can either further their education to become professors or apply their knowledge to other fields. As a future journalist and novelist, my expertise in grammar and oration will greatly benefit my story-telling. Ever read a little book called Harry Potter? In case you didn’t know, most character names and spells are Latin.

To anyone who’s interested in the Classics, don’t despair. Learning Latin was the best decision I made in college, and now I know a language usually reserved for the most educated and elite people of all time. You can get a job no matter what you study, as long as market your skills accordingly. I’m optimistic that my minor will actually help me stand out in the job market, but I’m also determined enough to make my dream career come true.

As for Rush, I only have one thing to say to you: Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo!