Demi-God reawakens Classical Myths

It wasn’t the bookies favourite, but it was the bestselling book of the Orange Prize shortlist and as I discovered, Madeline Miller’s
‘The Song of Achilles’ had much to entice a multitude of readers, being a contemporary narration of an age-old tale drawn from the Greek Myths, published in the lead up to the Olympic Games and touching on issues that echo President Obama’s recent stand on equality for same-sex couples. Very 21st century then.

Inspired by Homer’s classicThe Iliad‘, Miller focuses on Achilles, the half God, half mortal son of Peleus and Thetis and his friend, the young exiled Prince, Patroclus, about whom little is known. Achilles’ mother Thetis is a sea-nymph and fears for her son’s future; she will do everything she can to protect him given his fate as the greatest warrior of his generation, and to avoid his death which it the oracles say will follow his killing of Hector.

The friendship between Achilles and Patroclus fires Miller’s imagination and the first half of the book beautifully depicts this at first distant relationship, blossom into a feverish loyalty. Not surprising to learn the author has been listening to and reading the Greek myths since she was 5 years old, a passion that carried her into studies of Greek and Latin, which comes across in this oeuvre.

Though I have only cursory knowledge of the Greek heroes, I have long been intrigued by their stories and archetypal symbolism, much in the same way I loved to learn about Maori myths and legends during my childhood; the legendary Maui, a demigod from Hawaiki, fished up New Zealand from the ocean.

I am reminded too of the child in A.S.Byatt’s ‘Ragnarök’ who relates to the Norse myths more than anything else anyone teaches her. So too, in my imagination do these legends of childhood come back to me and explain nature and humanity in a more primal way than anything else I was later taught – what we learn and how it affects us isn’t so much chosen as absorbed into our being when we are very young.

So ‘The Song of Achilles’ inspired me to pick up my ‘Myths of Greece & Rome’ by H.A.Gueber and read all the references to Achilles, Patroclus, Thetis, Peleus, Hector and more. Within its pages I found this reference to a word and metaphor we all know to refer to the tendon in the heel, but whose origin is much less known.

Thetis loved this only child so dearly, that when he was but a babe, she had carried him to the banks of the Styx, whose waters had the magic power of rendering all the parts they touched invulnerable. Premising that her son would be a great warrior, and thus exposed to great danger, she plunged him wholly into the tide with the exception of one heel, but which she held him, and then returned home.

In the original story an oracle foretells that Achilles will die from a wound in his heel after his dispatch of Hector; ultimately he will be remembered and perhaps even more renowned for this insignificant but fatal weakness, than for his epic courage and strength.

I liked this book as much for its inspiring me to look at other books and references to find out more about the legend as I did for the story itself. I came to it without much knowledge of its content and found the first half totally intriguing, reading it in one sitting. It did slow and almost lose me once they set sail for Troy and the ensuing battle scenes were a little two-dimensional, but when Patroclus found his healing abilities and tended to the wounded soldiers, the story refocused on the lead characters.  The action played off the battle field was more captivating and I was gripped throughout the last quarter.

22 thoughts on “Demi-God reawakens Classical Myths

  1. Reading Greek myths since five, wow. I’d say that would send me off in such a writing direction as well.

    Good thing Thetis didn’t hold Achilles by the butt; it’d be a hell of a way to go (and be remembered across millennia.)


  2. This sounds great – thanks for the recommendation. I’ve added it to my list and will see if our library has any copies. (I’m sure they will in the near future since it’s won the award.)


    • Go in cold turkey, I’ve tried to read the Greek and Roman Myths book before but without a context it was difficult to engage, as there are too many characters. Whereas once I started reading ‘The Song of Achilles’ I looked up all the characters and had a much more appreciative view of them. Having the context really helps.


  3. I thought this was about a factual story, not myth – now I’m totally interested as I was introduced to mythology at a young age. I found it easier to concentrate on Roman myths because of the association with the planets and how that made it easier to remember them, though my introduction was to Greek. Incidentally if you can find a reason for a post on Maori mythology, that would be awesome.


    • I love modern interpretations of the myths that then propel me into the original stories, I love the symbols and archetypes and how these continue to inspire many genres.

      Thank you for the suggestion, I will indeed think about writing something on Maori mythology, that’s a great idea. 🙂


  4. I love Greek and Roman mythology and have been fascinated with it ever since I was a kid. I remember taking extra classes in college on the subject even though it wasn’t in my major, just so I could learn more! Thanks to you, my reading list is becoming almost too long to read!


    • My list is definitely too long to read too, books are kind of like keeping up with fashion for me, there are the books I have read, I read one a week and then there are ALL the books I have read about, some of which make it to the TBR pile and others that will only ever be minimally discussed until I promote them to the list or never consider them. Blogging is terrible for creating out of control TBR lists and I’m conscious I add to that 🙂 Sorry.


  5. Sounds interesting… As for various myths, I’ve been reading them since I was a kid, they never bored me, and I somehow managed not to mix up either numerous characters or mythologies.


  6. Sorry if I’m a bit late to the party on this one – had a busy few days, but am now catching-up with your recent reviews. I’ve heard so many good things about this but, similarly, I’m always wary of “re-tellings” just because, I think, I’ve been burned by them so many times before. But given the praise that’s been lavished on it, I’ll probably check it out.

    Great review – love your comments about how the two-dimensional battles have a tendency to grind against the books’ momentum – I think we might be very similar readers, in this regard!


  7. Oh, now I’ve lost my zeal. I’m not as committed to a book as you are (admire this) and will stop reading if I get lost. If not for Shift’s language in Cleopatra, I would have folded long before the end of the book. My connection (although vague) is the the reference to during Cleopatra’s time (and before) is the education. Reading the Iliad was required reading and almost like second skin. I started rereading my copy, a few pages a night. You forget the heft and how much it has influenced everything since.


  8. I’ve always been semi-interested in myths but never really got around to reading them. I should start with Greek mythology, shouldn’t I? There are fascinating stories there …


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