Book Club Questions: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their difference, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. 

But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear. 

After reading The Goldfinch, which we both agreed was “kind of gay, but nowhere near gay enough,” we picked a book we had heard would not disappoint: Madeline Miller’s retelling of Achilles and Patroclus’ epic love story on the battlefields of Troy. Both of us definitely enjoyed reading this book, and had a lovely discussion about it while sitting outside enjoying a surprise sunny spring day in Seattle. I think you will benefit in your reading experience if you are already familiar with the Iliad to some degree, though reading a thorough summary would probably suffice. While not The Best retelling I’ve ever read, this book was certainly a good and thoroughly enjoyable time. I would particularly recommend it if you are a fan of Greek mythology, retellings, or sad doomed love stories.

Discussion questions under the cut!

Although it was a very different book from this one, The Secret History is another novel we have recently read that was associated with Classics. During our discussion of Tartt’s novel, we remarked on the many ways she adopted Classical literary traditions and translated them to our modern world. Does Miller do the same in this novel? If you have ever read the Odyssey or the Iliad, are there any ways Miller tried to emulate her source texts?

On another similar-but-different note, we recently read another literary “fanfic” and discussed the ways Death Comes to Pemberley failed as a retelling/extension of a known piece of literature. Do you think Miller’s novel succeeds? Why or why not?

Did you like the way Miller blended myth and real life? Why or why not?

Patroclus frequently reminds us that these are his memories only that he is imparting, and that they are not always complete and never impartial. As someone who is also trying to write a story that is built from memory in retrospect, I was interested by Miller’s approach. Why do you think she reminded us from the novel’s beginning of the incomplete and narrowed field of Patroclus’ perspective? How does this perspective distinguish her adaptive novel from its canon?

Odysseus is probably Achilles’ only rival in fame in the Classical canon. If you’ve read the Odyssey, do you think Miller created a convincing portrayal here? Did you like this Odysseus more or less than in his own original story?

In the Iliad, Patroclus is a pretty fearsome warrior in his own right, with a higher kill count than Ajax. Do you think Miller’s choice to eradicate that aspect of Patroclus’ character oversimplifies his and Achilles’ relationship into stereotypes (dominant and non-dominant), or do you think this was a positive choice on her part?

What makes something “tragic” as opposed to “sad”? How would you define that category yourself? (Think of other literary tragedies if that helps.)

Clever foreshadowing often features in this book – a book about a story the majority of the Western world is acquainted with. What is the point of telling a story where everyone already knows the ending? What benefit in that can be found for the writer?

The king of all faults in Greek culture during the age of heroes was hubris. (For reference, I include my favorite insult: I hope you accidentally brag about being better than a Greek god at something.) Does that fault of faults continue to hold its high status in our modern literature as well?

There are many Greek heroes in this book. Who would you say Miller portrays as the most heroic? What qualities do we consider heroic today?

What did you think of the ending? Satisfying? Not satisfying? How so?

If you use these questions to shape an online discussion post of your own, please link back and give credit.

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