RA Crossroads: What To Read After Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, What is the use of a book‚Ķwithout pictures or conversations? Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, the story of Achilles and Patroclus leads me down a winding path.


Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles. Ecco: HarperCollins. 2012. c.384p. ISBN 9780062060617. $25.99. F
In her debut novel, Miller takes what Simone Weil called a poem of force and tempers it into a heartbreaking love story crafted from lines that often evoke the lyrical mode of its source. The basic story of The Iliad is well known, but Miller’s take on the epic, along with her strong characterizations and masterful pacing, remakes it. By focusing more than half of the book on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus before the Trojan War begins, Miller shifts the focus from the military feats and rage of Achilles to a meditation on devotion and abiding love. Achilles and Patroclus come of age in Achilles’s home, where dozens of fostered boys learn to fight. Shy and awkward, Patroclus finds Achilles, the son of the sea goddess Thetis, to be an astounding boy, a half-god child in all manner of ways. Achilles comes to see Patroclus as his brother-in-arms, and both find in each other their completion. Their story is subtle and tender, an intimate point of focus against the broad sweep of war. By the time Miller takes Achilles and Patroclus to the shores of Troy, she has gathered all the heroes and legends of Greece in her palm and tosses them onto the sands in their full glory. Odysseus is brought so vividly to life that he seems to stride off the page. Having devoted such attention to the union of Achilles and Patroclus, Miller sets the stage for the emotional tragedy to come: not just the death of these lovers, but the consequences of their conflicting conceptions of valor.


George, Anne Carroll. This One and Magic Life. William Morrow. 2001. 288p. ISBN 9780380795406. pap. $14.99. F
The poetic sensibility of Miller’s retelling of The Iliad also imbues George’s story of the Sullivan family. George (1927‚ 2001) was once the state poet of Alabama, and her lyricism is on full display in this affecting and heartfelt novel that blends Southern family secrets with a shot of Greek mythology. Upon the death of Artemis Sullivan, the members of her family (including her brothers Adonis and Hektor) come home to discover a long-buried past, simmering secrets, and pieces of their lives they had forgotten. George’s sensitive take on death evokes the same intimate and tender mood conjured by Miller. Readers who enjoyed Miller’s approach to writing about family bonds, her brisk and enveloping pacing, and the way the Greek myths provided her with both character and motivation should find lovely echoes here.

Renault, Mary. The King Must Die. Vintage. 1988. 352p. ISBN 9780394751047. pap. $15. F
Renault is one of the masters of historical fiction, and echoes of her work reverberate in Miller’s. Both authors seem to stop time with their gripping and unfolding stories and invite readers to step inside their created worlds (although Renault reads a bit more leisurely), and both set their tales in vivid landscapes rich in detail, myth, and culture. Both manage the mythic background beautifully‚ so well, in fact, that each makes readers question which aspects of the story are fiction and which are history. In this first of a two-part story, Renault tells of Theseus and his battle with the Minotaur. She begins with the young Theseus uncovering the identity of his father and traces his story through the labyrinth (the rest of his tale is taken up in The Bull from the Sea). Readers who enjoy Renault should also be pointed to her books on Alexander the Great (Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games).

George, Margaret. Helen of Troy. Penguin. 2007. 656p. ISBN 9780143038993. pap. $17. F
In Miller’s account, Helen is only once discussed and never seen. Why she fled with Paris and brought ruin to the world is the topic of a brief conversation between Achilles and Patroclus but no more. Historical novelist George (The Memoirs of Cleopatra) lifts the veil on this subject and allows Helen all the glorious complexity that is her due. Her novel serves as a wonderful supplement for fans of Miller, providing a parallel story and a different view of events. The two also work well together as George shares Miller’s gift for pacing, detail, and characterization. While their styles are different, they are equally dazzling as they bring the ancient world to life. Fans of Miller should enjoy learning more about the woman they encountered only as a veiled figure, the object of Odysseus’s condescension, as well as the long and less-than-heroic aftermath of the war. For nonfiction fans, consider Bettany Hughes’s Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore as well as Hughes’s PBS documentary, Helen of Troy.


Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Grand Central. 2011. 512p. ISBN 9780446574754. pap. $9.99. FOLKLORE
While readers don’t need a background in Greek mythology to enjoy Miller’s novel, it certainly helps. It is also likely that her vivid evocation of the clash of epic heroes and the gods who took their sides will spur many readers to want to learn more. Hamilton’s survey is a classic place to start and should serve the needs of most readers. She retells the tales in clear, inviting prose, mixing explanation with vivid storytelling enhanced with lovely illustrations. It is the perfect choice for readers who want to learn about the Greek Pantheon in small, accessible bites. Other choices abound, and if you own the collections by Thomas Bulfinch, Robert Graves, or Gustav Schwab, suggest them as well. You could also step over to your juvenile collection and pull D’Aulaires’s Book of Greek Myths‚ while the content is softened for children, the main points are there and the illustrations are stunning. For readers who want more, suggest the ancient retellings‚ Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apollodorus’s The Library of Greek Mythology. Finally, Richard Buxton’s The Complete World of Greek Mythology is a lavishly illustrated companion and gives a good contextual sense of the myths.

Alexander, Caroline. The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War. Penguin. 2010. 320p. ISBN 9780670021123. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9780143118268. $16. LIT/HIST
In her vigorous and engaging retelling of The Iliad, Alexander (The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition) explores and carefully interprets the text, offering readers a chance to engage deeply with a story that can at first seem all surface plot, battle, and endless names. Her accessible history is deeply informed by scholarship but never seems pedantic. Rather, it offers a contextual and somewhat iconoclastic reading that connects the ancient tale to modern concerns of war. This lively, far-reaching, and investigative work should offer readers looking for more about the battle itself, and its complex implications, a host of interesting threads to follow. Pair it with Barry Strauss’s The Trojan War for readers who want a historical rather than literary view.

Aeschylus. The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides. Penguin. 1984. 336p. tr. from Greek by Robert Fagles. ISBN 9780140443332. pap. $13. LIT
Sophocles. Electra and Other Plays. Penguin. 2008. 256p. tr. from Greek by David Raeburn. ISBN 9780140449785. pap. $12. LIT
Homer. The Odyssey. Penguin. 2006. 560p. tr. from Greek by Robert Fagles. ISBN 9780143039952. pap. $16. LIT
Euripides. Medea and Other Plays. Oxford. 2009. 272p. tr. from Greek by James Morwood. ISBN 9780199537969. pap. $9.95. LIT
What happened to everyone? That is the question many readers are likely to ask when they come to the end of Miller’s tale. Not every character has been granted full-blown treatment in other works, and of those who have been, the news has not often been good. The fate of the war’s vain leader can be read in the first play of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, Agamemnon. The fate of Ajax is tied to his conception of honor, much like the fate of Achilles. In Sophocles’s Ajax, included in the Electra collection, read what happens when the war ends and Odysseus, rather than Ajax, is awarded Achilles’s armor. Odysseus, so clever in Miller’s novel and so highly regarded in Greek myth, has a most adventurous and rewarding end; read how he eventually gets home to his Penelope in The Odyssey, where what happened to Menelaus and Helen can also be discovered. Euripides writes more of Helen (and a fake Helen) in his play Helen, found in the Medea collection.


Homer. The Iliad. 12 CDs. retail ed. unabridged. 15 hrs. Parmenides Publishing. 2006. tr. from Greek by Stanley Lombardo. ISBN 9781930972087. $42. LIT
After gaining a background in the myths, readers are likely to want to experience The Iliad itself. Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore, and Robert Fagles all offer fine translations with their own rich rewards if a print copy is what is wanted. But The Iliad began as an oral story, and listening to it being told is a great delight. Lombardo’s (classics, Univ. of Kansas) performance of his translation of the epic is a tour de force. Listeners will feel as if they have been transported back in time and are sitting in the dark around a fire, watching the bard’s unfocused eyes as he tells his story. The pace is rapid and involving, the poetry vigorous, and Lombardo’s performance visceral, vivid, and thrilling. He also reads his translation of The Odyssey for those who want to listen to, rather than read, what happens to Odysseus.


In Search of the Trojan War. 330 min. Bill Lyons. dist. by PBS. 2004. $34.98.
Historian Michael Wood presents a vivid and vastly entertaining history of the war and its background, sifting through archaeological finds and known history to paint a fascinating picture of Troy. Using a mix of historical investigation, interviews, and informed speculation, Wood places the war into a multilayered contextual frame including the myths involved, the cultural practices of the day, and Homer’s accuracy. Though made in the late 1980s, the six-part series continues to hold its own and should provide fans of Miller with a great deal of added insight. If viewers want a movie version of the war, suggest Wolfgang Petersen’s director’s cut of Troy starring Brad Pitt. It takes huge liberties with Homer, but the setting and fight scenes make it worth the time. You could also suggest the 1956 Hollywood spectacle Helen of Troy directed by Robert Wise.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net