Notes on the Style of “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

Disclaimer: do not read if you don’t like spoilers. This blog post is built of them.

I’ve been meaning to read The Song of Achilles for some time. I’d heard good things about the author and the writing, and I’m partial to the stories of the Greek and Roman heroes, even in retold form (The Love Artist, a story about Ovid, is a phenomenal novel and comes highly recommended). The novel did not disappoint.

In a sentence: the book is not just describing the era — it’s of the era it’s capturing.

In a paragraph: it perfectly captures the world of ships and heroes and Gods and blood and war and oceans and simplicity. It isn’t stuffy (as the distant formality of old works often feels). Rather, it’s simple and pure; fully reminiscent of the time, but told in a voice we can understand. The metaphors weave an understanding of the world the story is set in that gives it bones and breath.

Madeline Miller is not master, but she’s talented. Her work is good.

There are four components of her writing that I find most compelling:

  1. Dichotomy
  2. Metaphor/imagery
  3. Physical anchors
  4. Truth

I’ll dig into each separately, and explain how each helps to build the authentic framework of the book. But first, a few notes on the story itself:

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the life (and death) of Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, the greatest warrior of his time. It’s told from the perspective of his lover, the exiled prince Patroclus. The story marks each season of his life — their boyhood spent together, their youth spent in training with the centaur Chiron, the early evasions of the Trojan War (where Achilles was prophesied to die), the war itself, and finally, the death — first of Patroclus, then of a heartbroken Achilles, while Patroclus is caught in a limbo in the afterlife, trapped in the physical world but separated from all things physically anchored.  It’s a story of the fulfillment of a prophecy — for no matter how hard you try to evade it (and Patroclus and Achilles did), a prophecy must come to pass.

The story is good — well-spun and well-crafted — but the framework within which the story is told is the part of the book that is most impressive.

Dichotomy

Dichotomy is one of my favorite modes of description. It’s the art of pitting the stark realities of two different things against each other, and making them feel more stark and more real by nature of the contrast.

There’s a concept in storytelling called tensive pulls — the concept of different desires pulling a character in different directions. For example — if your character is in love with another character (and wants to be as close to him as possible), but also knows that this character will break her heart if she gets too close, these two conflicting desires pull her in two separate directions, and leave her suspended between them — held upright, but not at rest in either direction.

Dichotomy works the same way. The stark contrast between two very differing images accentuates the reality of each.

Examples of Dichotomy:

“Through the haze of terror I see a man leveling a spear at my face. Somehow I am quick enough, and it passes over me, ruffling my hair like a lover’s breath.” — this is Patroclus, in the pages before he dies. We’re slightly shocked by the starkness in difference between these two images — an instrument of death equated to the softness of life and the tender breath of a lover. See how both become more real? They become stark by contrast; and also stark because we realize that the qualities of each are akin, and that it isn’t a stretch to say so.

“For me these four years had been an abundance, time that had been wrested from the hands of miserly fates. But for them it was a life stolen: from children and wives, from family and home.” — Patroclus, reflecting on the difference in his experience of the war as opposed to the experience of the average soldier. For him, each year the war dragged on was another year cheated from the prophecy, that he got to keep Achilles before he was killed (for they came to Troy knowing Achilles would die). For those around him, though, it was life lost, while they waited restlessly for it to end.

“She stepped forward, and the grass seemed to wilt beneath her feet. She was a sea-nymph, and the things of earth did not love her.” — of Achilles’ mother Thetis. This is less stark than the others, but still powerful. The juxtaposition of land and sea, of goddess and the quelling of life.

Metaphors and Imagery

In this, Madeline Miller approaches mastery. Whenever one is establishing a setting, the vocabulary of metaphors is critical. They must be carefully selected and defined (the way one chooses a tone palette of colors, for everything in a painting, a wardrobe, or a space to feel cohesive).

The metaphors Miller chooses are direct reflections of the predominant forces and anchor points of the characters’ worlds. They’re metaphors of the sea, of love, of war, of the Gods, of the physical anchors of the Greek world. They’re relevant, and they reinforce the sense of place and grounding in a powerful way.

Examples of Metaphors and Imagery:

“She seemed to pause, and I thought she might speak again. She did not. Only opened her hand and released me, boneless, to the ground.” — Boneless. Such a good description. The metaphors of ancient times are simple. There’s a ruggedness to them. A rawness. They feel very visceral and very human on a base level — like all the extraneous metaphors have been stripped away. Almost like the Descartes approach to metaphors — strip everything down to the basics and then build it back up in a very intentional way.

“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.” — if one were to create a matrix of metaphors for this Greek/Trojan world, describing yourself as a god would be the ultimate indicator of good — and so it’s appropriately used in this context.

“The slightest tremor, over the still water of her face.” — water is a very commonly used metaphor in this novel. It’s a key piece in the world and the time, and it’s a key anchor in the story — Achilles’s mother is a sea nymph, and they have to cross the sea to reach Troy — and then they’re locked at Troy by the sea, and must defend their boats (for if they burn, they’ll be stranded in Troy, and will be refugees instead of raiders).

“He was the only thing on the battlefield that didn’t pitch feverishly, like the salt-slicked deck of a ship, until I was sick with it.” — another ocean metaphor.

“Her words were like new leather, still stiff and precise, not yet run together with use.” — of a slave learning to speak Greek. Such a contextual metaphor, abiding by the rules of the world to find a perfect comparison.

““I feel like Daphne,” I told him, barked up in her new laurel skin.” — comparing dressing in armor to the experience of Daphne turning into a tree. This one is magic.

“A single thrust crushes her to the ground, leaves her chest torn up like a field beneath the plow.” — description of a woman cut down by a spear in battle.

Physical Anchors

Madeline Miller repeatedly grounds her story and her characters in physical space, with the use of sensory anchors — touches, scents, sensations. You don’t just conceptually understand the story — you touch it and taste it and feel it, and that makes it far more real.

Examples of Physical Anchors:

““Show me your hand.” I did, palm out. He rested his own palm against it. I tried not to startle. His skin was soft and slightly sticky from dinner. The plump finger pads brushing mine were very warm.” — one of the first instances of physical contact between Patroclus and Achilles.

“Even from where I sat I could smell the sea on him.” — admit it. This is incredibly evocative.

“I feel like I could eat the world raw.” — very physically anchored.

“I woke to the red of my eyelids straining out the sun.” — anchored and true.

Truth

As Hemingway said: “All you have to do is write the truest sentence you know.” This, ultimately, is the point of fiction — to masquerade it as truth. Or perhaps, to have it serve as a vehicle for revealing truth.

One of the risks run in both historical fiction and fantasy — and any genre even slightly removed from reality — is that it can feel false. Made-up. Contrived. There are no sea nymphs rising from the ocean in our world and birthing heroes. Such things give a sense of removal to the story, and make it harder to get lost within it.

It’s the pure, indivisible truths that bring it back to center and make it most poignant for the reader. The things that are timeless, circumstanceless, undeniably relatable. The things that are absolute, whether you were born of sea-nymph or born of mortal, whether you’re on the shores at Troy or living a modern life in a modern world.

Good fiction must have truth. Otherwise we can’t forget it’s fiction; and if we can’t forget it’s fiction, then we can never truly experience it as it was intended to be experienced.

Examples of Truth:

“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”

“When he dies, people will say, who?” — evocative of a primal human fear.

“I lay back and tried not to think of the minutes passing. Just yesterday we had had a wealth of them. Now each was a drop of heartsblood lost.” — again, everyone can relate to this — the sensation of time slipping by far faster than we’d like, but entirely outside of our control to stop it, and each passing second feeling like it’s draining something irreplaceable from you.

“I had embraced him too, those thin, wiry limbs. I thought, This is what Achilles will feel like when he is old.” — the surprise of imagining someone you love as old; and the accompanying sense of inevitability.

“In less than an hour the raid would begin. I had fallen asleep thinking of it; I had woken with it.” — such a true depiction of the dread of anticipation.

Other Favorite Lines:

“He looked different in sleep, beautiful but cold as moonlight. I found myself wishing he would wake so that I might watch the life return.” — such intimacy, and yet such a sense of being unsettled. Such contentedness juxtaposed against such yearning.

“His eyes opened. “Name one hero who was happy.”” — if good artists steal (and they do), then I should like to steal this.

“Dusk came at last and released us, limping and exhausted, back to our tents, dragging the wounded and dead.” — such beautiful wordplay. It almost sounds like the dusk is dragging the dead.

“It was spring, and we were surrounded by the profusion of Anatolian fertility. For three weeks the earth would paint herself in every color, burst every bud, unfurl each rioting petal. Then, the wild flush of her excitement spent, she would settle down to the steady work of summer. It was my favorite time of year.”

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