Join BookBrowse today and get access to free books, our twice monthly digital magazine, and more.

The Evolution of Achilles: Background information when reading The Song of Achilles

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Song of Achilles

A Novel

by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller X
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Mar 2012, 384 pages

    Paperback:
    Aug 2012, 384 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Evolution of Achilles

This article relates to The Song of Achilles

Print Review

The name Achilles has become synonymous with great strength and invulnerability, however to the ancient Greeks it had quite a different meaning. "Achilles" itself is a Westernization; the hero's name is better translated Akhilleus and pronounced "a-hee-LAY-us," and is of unknown and possibly pre-Greek origin. It is a combination of two words: Akhos ("grief") and Laos ("people or tribe"). It's possible that the name is derived from the Akheloos River in in western Greece, although several sources have interpreted it to mean that Achilles was the "embodiment of the grief of the people" or that he was the "hero of grief;" others construe it to mean "grief to the enemy."

The tale of Achilles and the Trojan War is one of the most well-known and influential stories in Greek mythology. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica:

Achilles tending the wounded Patroclus In the traditional accounts, Paris, son of the Trojan king, ran off with Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta, whose brother Agamemnon then led a Greek expedition against Troy. The ensuing war lasted 10 years, finally ending when the Greeks pretended to withdraw, leaving behind them a large wooden horse with a raiding party concealed inside. When the Trojans brought the horse into their city, the hidden Greeks opened the gates to their comrades, who then sacked Troy, massacred its men, and carried off its women... During the first nine years of the war, Achilles ravaged the country around Troy and took 12 cities. In the 10th year a quarrel with Agamemnon occurred when Achilles insisted that Agamemnon restore Chryseis, his prize of war, to her father, a priest of Apollo, so as to appease the wrath of Apollo, who had decimated the camp with a pestilence. An irate Agamemnon recouped his loss by depriving Achilles of his favourite slave, Briseis.

Achilles' deeds are most famously chronicled in Homer's The Iliad, an epic poem primarily concerning a two-week period in the ten-year-long Trojan War and written during the 8th century BCE. It is widely believed, however, that The Iliad was based on oral tradition, so it's possible the legend is much older. The Iliad details Achilles' pivotal actions over that short time period (but does not include information about his birth, childhood or death).

Achilles slaying Penthesilea Over the centuries, narrators added to the chronicle of Achilles' life, eventually developing a full biography for him. Because the stories were primarily oral, however, they varied significantly. For example, in one version of Achilles' early life, his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, coated his body in ambrosia and set him ablaze on a pyre in an attempt to burn off his mortality, thereby making him invincible (but was interrupted, which kept him from becoming completely invulnerable). In another, she dipped him in the River Styx to accomplish the same result (holding him by the heel, which then became the only vulnerable part of his body). But both of these were later additions to the myth, appearing no earlier than the 1st century CE. Indeed, there's no suggestion in The Iliad that Achilles is invincible; Homer in fact details a scene in which Achilles' elbow is wounded by a spear, and there are at least three different accounts of his death, all of which appear to have arisen well after Homer created his opus.

Portrayals of Achilles have continued to evolve over the centuries - from Aeschylus's trilogy (written in 500 BCE, now referred to as the Achilleis) to Sophocles's The Lovers of Achilles, from Robert Duncan's poem "Achilles' Song" to Brad Pitt's role in the 2004 movie Troy - making him the archetype of the strong male hero that continues to inspire people to this day.

Top image: Achilles tending the wounded Patroclus, Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BCE
Bottom image: Achilles slaying Penthesilea, Attic black-figure amphora signed by Exekias, c. 530. BCE; British Museum London.

Filed under

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article relates to The Song of Achilles. It first ran in the March 21, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Join our inner reading circle, go ad-free and get way more!

Find out more


Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: The Last Murder at the End of the World
    The Last Murder at the End of the World
    by Stuart Turton
    The island is the only safe place left on Earth. Since a deadly fog overtook the planet, the ...
  • Book Jacket
    A Kind of Madness
    by Uche Okonkwo
    The word "madness," like many others that can be used to stigmatize mental illness — e.g., "...
  • Book Jacket: Long After We Are Gone
    Long After We Are Gone
    by Terah Shelton Harris
    Terah Shelton Harris's marvelous family drama Long After We Are Gone begins with the death of the ...
  • Book Jacket: Exhibit
    Exhibit
    by R O. Kwon
    Exhibit, R.O. Kwon's sophomore novel (after The Incendiaries, 2018), introduces readers to Jin Han, ...

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket
Look on the Bright Side
by Kristan Higgins
From the author of Pack Up the Moon comes a funny, romantic, and moving novel about life's unexpected rewards.
Book Jacket
The Pecan Children
by Quinn Connor
Two sisters deeply tied to their small Southern town fight to break free of the darkness swallowing the land whole.
Win This Book
Win Bright and Tender Dark

Bright and Tender Dark by Joanna Pearson

A beautifully written, wire-taut debut novel about a murder on a college campus and its aftermath twenty years later.

Enter

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

A W in S C

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.