The Genius of Madeline Miller and “The Song of Achilles”

I’m thrilled to be guest-blogging for Ristra Reads and Recs, and especially to discuss the works of one of my favorite authors – Madeline Miller! I read both The Song of Achilles and Circe at the end of last year, and I am still astounded by the beauty Miller has managed to create. 

Once Jacqueline and I had discovered we’d both loved Miller’s books and were able to form somewhat-coherent thoughts (and dried our tears), she asked me the near-impossible question: which book did you like better? After getting over the initial bewilderment that she somehow expected me to determine which of these masterpieces was better, I realized that my gut reaction was that I had enjoyed The Song of Achilles more. But the harder part was defending my standpoint. 

Before writing this post, I took some time to really think about it, and I came up with three coherent reasons as to why I preferred The Song of Achilles. However, before I delve any further, I must take a moment to say that I absolutely loved Circe as well, and it was impossible for me to discuss what I liked better about The Song of Achilles without also discussing what I loved about Circe.

First, The Song of Achilles made me cry. A lot. 

Yes, this is one of the reasons why I liked the book. What can I say? I’m a sucker for angst. The Song of Achilles didn’t just make me cry; it reduced me to a sobbing, blubbering mess. It completely obliterated any of its competition for “book that made me cry the most.” While I loved Circe and it certainly made me feel lots of emotions as well, the fact that I was up late at night, sobbing alone in the darkness for at least an hour after finishing The Song of Achilles definitely gives it an edge for me. Despite being an emotional person, I don’t actually cry that much while reading books. The author really has to immerse me in the story and its emotions in order for actual tears to stream down my face, and Madeline Miller did just that. 

Here’s the thing. Going into it, I knew what was going to happen, because The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Iliad. (Side note: If you’re not super familiar with the story of Achilles and Patroclus, I would definitely recommend brushing up on it before reading Miller’s book). I knew exactly what was coming, and yet, when it actually happened, Miller still managed to make it absolutely devastating. I was just innocently reading along, and then I started thinking that it was getting sad, and then I noticed that my face was wet, and then suddenly I was crying so much I could barely see the pages as I finished the book. And, as I said before, I’m a sucker for angst, so any book that has the ability to pull that much emotion from me is automatically going to the top of my favorites. 

It had more LGBTQ+ representation.

I suppose this is a fairly obvious statement, but yes, the fact that the focus of the book was on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was a huge plus for me. Achilles and Patroclus love each other so much. Miller, as always, describes everything in such a beautiful, poetic way. Knowing how the story was going to end just made every beautiful, emotional moment between them that much more gut-wrenching. Even when I was happy for them in the moment, there was also a lingering sadness, knowing what was still to come. 

It was a retelling of a familiar story.

Like any person who went through a Greek mythology phase, I knew the basics of The Iliad and the role Achilles played in it, and I appreciate fresh perspectives on well-known tales. In particular, I loved that in addition to telling Achilles’ story, Miller chose to tell it from Patroclus’ perspective. Before reading the book, I had just assumed from the title and what little I knew about it that it would be from Achilles’ perspective. But narrating the book from Patroclus’ perspective, a character who is easier for the reader to relate to, helps to build up Achilles’ grandeur, offering a unique twist to the story that I knew from childhood. 

Also, I briefly touched on this earlier, but knowing the basic story beforehand heightened the emotional impact of The Song of Achilles for me. Scenes or dialogue that otherwise would have been purely romantic or heartwarming became heartbreaking, as I witnessed their innocent obliviousness of the events that were to come. I loved that the reader had more insight than the characters did. Because the book was a retelling, Miller was able to weave in little details that broke my heart even before I reached the end.

I did, however, prefer the ending of Circe.

I must admit that Circe has what I believe to be the best ending to a book I have ever read. It made sense, it harkened back to themes throughout the entirety of the book, and it was just beautifully written. I’m afraid I can’t wax poetic about it too much more for fear of spoilers, but trust me when I say that you should read this book for the ending alone. It is a thing of pure beauty. And this is a place where I think it has The Song of Achilles beat. While the ending of The Song of Achilles absolutely destroyed me and I loved it, there was something about Circe’s ending that was just so… perfect. 

This applies to both but: the beautiful writing style.

I’m not really one for poetry, so normally I would expect that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy a poetic writing style. But let me tell you. Miller truly made me understand how the written word is an art form. She describes everything with an unparalleled poetic beauty and grace that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. Miller makes you understand how beautiful a word can be. If hearing the word “poetic” would typically turn you off, I implore you to please give Miller a chance because neither of these stories would be the same without her writing style.So in conclusion, Miller is an absolute goddess, and I wish I could have learned all of my Greek mythology from her. I have also learned that comparing her books is really freaking difficult. So while I suppose my answer is that I prefer The Song of Achilles, both of her books are entirely worthwhile, and it’s really up to you to read them both and see which one will be your new favorite.

One thought on “The Genius of Madeline Miller and “The Song of Achilles”

  1. I loved these books so much too and you’re making me want to reread them! It’s so tricky choosing between them – I loved the empowering feminist tone of Circe, but I think I agree with you that The Song of Achilles has a slight edge for sheer emotional impact! 📚❤️ X x x

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