Book discussion: Comparing The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls
I’m sure a lot of people have done this, but I read these two books back to back and was really struck by the drastic differences between these two stories.
Both books are retellings of the Illiad, the story of the ten-year battle between the Greeks and the Trojans after the supposed abduction of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, by Paris, Prince of Troy. Specifically, both of these books focus on the life of Achilles.
The Silence of the Girls, written by Pat Barker, is the story of Briseis. She is a princess, taken captive by the Greeks after the fall of her city, and claimed by Achilles as his prize. The story follows her attempt to survive what follows during the rest of the war. It’s relentless and bleak, but beautifully written.
The Song of Achilles is written from the point of view of Patroclus, who was Achilles’ childhood friend who becomes his lover. The story follow Patroclus’ entire life and how inextricably it was tied to the love of his life, Achilles. I was completely and utterly engulfed in the story, and read it in one go.
I didn’t know much about the Illiad, or Achilles, and both books definitely made me want to read more. One thing that I did think was interesting is how both novel titles have sound (or lack of it) in them. ‘Silence’ and ‘Song’ contradict each other, which is perfect, because both of these stories do.
Just a quick note before I carry on – I am going to mention specific parts of each book, so there will be some spoilers – so if you haven’t read them and don’t want to know anything about the books, look away now! (or scroll to the bottom and leave me a comment letting me know just how much you now want to read both of these – would highly recommend.)
Patroclus is a Good Guy
In both books Patroclus is Achilles’ moral compass, his more-humane anchor to the real world. It’s much more obvious in Song of Achilles (which is perhaps to be expected as it’s from his point of view, and so there’s going to be bias from the narrator), where Patroclus never even learns how to fight properly, but even in the Silence of the Girls, where his character is slightly more ambiguous, he is definitely someone who is good (or better than the other men) at his core.
Briseis is an important character – but has very little dialogue herself
Silence of the Girls is mostly from Briseis’ perspective, but when you look back at how much actual dialogue we get from her, it’s very little. We hear her inner thoughts, but she doesn’t say that much out loud; even when she’s around the other women we just tend to know that she has a conversation with them, rather than seeing it.
In Song of Achilles, Briseis is a character who is introduced fairly late on in the story, and initially there is a language barrier between her conversations again. She becomes pivotal to climax of the novel, but, despite her close friendship with Patroclus, again she doesn’t proportionally have much dialogue at all.
Odysseus is a smart-arse but I adored him in both
Now, Odysseus is a character I knew a bit more about, having watched a weird cartoon about the Odyssey when I was in year five, but I didn’t really know anything about his role in the Trojan Wars. In both books he is sometimes ruthless, infuriating and too smart for his own good, but I really liked him. I liked his cynical views and genuinely enjoyed every scene that he was in.
Both slip between the past and the present tense
Time gets a bit blurred in both. In Silence of the Girls, Briseis tells her story in past tense, but there are section from Achilles’ point of view in the present. In Song of Achilles, Patroclus tells his part in the past tense, but sometimes his memories are recounted in the present. Both are telling their stories from somewhere in the future. I think it really works for both books, especially as you’re dealing with myth and legend; it adds a sort of vagueness of memory to it all.
They’re supposed to be the stories of people other than Achilles – but it is really all about him
Both are the stories are about more forgotten or neglected characters in this story; both become all about Achilles. He is all-consuming. I don’t mean this in a bad way, I think it’s deliberate, but it is especially jarring in the Silence of the Girls.
The first words in the Silence of the Girls is about Achilles, and his reputation. Briseis, towards the end of the novel, describes the Greek camp as a “rape camp” and everything about the story is questioning the male-dominated and controlled story of heroism of the Trojan war, but, in the end, the story ends when Achilles does. As the narrative marches on, we are let more into Achilles’ mind. Briseis’ voice, despite this being her story, is still trampled on by Achilles.
It’s maybe to be more expected in the Song of Achilles – he’s even in the title of Patroclus’ story. Patroclus and Achilles’ lives are too tangled in with Achilles’ living reputation, and the legend that he will one day become. In the end, that’s what both of their lives are leading towards.
If it wasn’t for the fact that they have the same name, I’m not sure I would have clicked that they are the same person.
In Silence of the Girls, Briseis is a captive princess. Achilles is cruel; Patroclus polite. She is repeatedly raped, first by Achilles, then by Agamemnon. She is there for a long time, months, but not years. At the end, Achilles and her come to some kind of agreement and she escapes the end of the war.
In Song of Achilles, Briseis isn’t a princess – from memory I think she is just an ordinary woman. She isn’t raped – Achilles has no interest in her, as he is in love with Patroclus, and Patroclus manages to protect her from Agamemnon. She is good friends with both, especially Patroclus, and they become like a little family. She looks after the other women who join their little camp; they have cosy campfire times. She is betrayed by Achilles and she does die quite horribly, but she’s there for years and the dynamic is completely different. I won’t lie, I found this rosy glow quite hard to buy into. I think that might be because I read Silence of the Girls first, but it’s hard for the reader to forget that she is a prisoner of war, even is Patroclus does.
Achilles’ relationship with his mother
Don’t get me wrong, it’s weird and difficult in both. Achilles’ mother was Thetis, an immortal goddess, who left Achilles when he was a child to rejoin the sea and surfaces every now and again.
In Song of Achilles, she is a controlling presence: she is obsessed with the legend that her son will create for himself, wildly protective and hates Patroclus. She spends a lot of time and energy trying to separate the two, but the relationship is definitely a strained parent-child one.
In the Silence of the Girls, there is an odder element to it. Achilles seems to reach out more to his mother, but it has an odd undertone to it. Briseis comments that Patroclus has become like a replacement mother for him, and there is one particularly disturbing scene where Achilles rapes Briseis after she has been swimming in the sea. She reminds him of his mother, and the sex is violent, and includes him essentially trying to breastfeed from her.
Patroclus’ role in the war
In Song of Achilles Patroclus doesn’t go into battle much, and when he does, he sucks. In Silence of the Girls, he is regularly out fighting with Achilles and his army. This doesn’t have an impact on the plot, as such – he still goes out in Achilles’ armour and gets killed by Hector, who is then killed by Achilles in revenge – but it does impact on how we see his contribution to this key part of the war and the Illiad in general. Patroclus becomes a martyr in both, but in Silence of the Girls it feels like he is a casualty of war and of men’s arrogance (Hector was the greatest warrior apart from Achilles, why would Patroclus attempt to take him on?); in Song of Achilles, this is a sacrifice.
It also changes how we view him. In Silence of the Girls he might be sympathetic towards Briseis, but he is doing nothing to help – and by going to war, he is actively putting more women in her position as a prize of war.
Overall, I really liked both books. I think I had a better reading experience with Song of Achilles because there were moments of joy. I loved Madeline Miller’s depiction of the ancient world and felt totally sucked in by it. The Silence of the Girls was fantastically written but I did have to take breaks from it as it was just relentlessly bleak, but it has definitely stayed in my mind for longer. I’m also glad I read that one first, as it did make me question some of the interpretations of the events in Song of Achilles – not questioning Miller’s knowledge or portrayal at all, but just thinking about how the viewpoint is from a male perspective and so naturally different in these examples of power in relationships.
Have you read either or both of these? What did you think of them? Let’s chat in the comments below!