Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the story of the great Greek warrior Achilles, told in the point of view of Achilles’s companion Patroclus. In case you’re a bit rusty on your Greek mythology, Patroclus is the guy from the Iliad who dressed up as Achilles to scare the Trojans away. In doing so, he ended up being killed by Hector, the great Trojan warrior. Achilles was so devastated at the loss of his companion that he got really, really mad and killed Hector, fulfilling a prophecy which would result in Achilles’s death.
There have been several famous “companions” in literature – Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Nisus and Euryalus, Frodo and Sam – that some have speculated are actually homosexual couples. Make of that last one what you will, but for the first three, it probably isn’t such a wild thing to claim. In Greek culture, there was a custom known as paiderastia, which usually involved an older male taking a younger male as a “companion” and having sexual relations with him. This was basically a way to justify sex between males while keeping it rather hushed up within their society. Paiderastia isn’t exactly the correct term to use when referring to Achilles and Patroclus, seeing as they were also companions from childhood and also the same age. But there was certainly some sort of close relationship between them, and Madeline Miller takes that relationship and transforms it into a full-out gay love story.
Which, yes, is very interesting.
I haven’t read the Iliad all the way through, but I have read the Odyssey and know the story of the Trojan War pretty well. The Song of Achilles borrows material from a variety of sources, as the story of the Trojan War crops up in more places than the Iliad and varies from version to version. In any case, you don’t need to have read the Iliad to read this book. Madeline Miller does a very good job of immersing you in the Ancient Greek world and presenting the story in a way which won’t have you confused.
I admit, when I first picked up this book I thought it was a modern retelling of the Iliad, set in the point of view of Achilles. It isn’t. When I began reading I thought it was Achilles’s story set in the point of view of Patroclus. It isn’t that, either.
The Song of Achilles is Patroclus’s story. As someone who will always support the characters on the sidelines, I loved this concept. Patroclus is not a central character in the Trojan War story, but Madeline Miller, through the material available from Achilles’s story, manages to construct a very well-written, extremely sad story about a “forgotten” character.
I don’t really need to go over the plot as you probably already know most of it. It starts at Patroclus’s birth and goes to after Achilles’s death. It covers a variety of themes that are not only engaging but are central in Greek literature – honor and fame in war, honor and fame after death, the importance of fatherhood and kingship, women’s roles in Greek society, the nature of companionship, burial after death, revenge and its consequences, hubris (overbearing pride) and its ramifications. The same themes apparent in ancient Greek plays like Oedipus and Medea and epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey are woven into this novel as well, and I applaud Madeline Miller for managing to do it so gracefully.
The relationship portrayed between Achilles and Patroclus is a love story, and it is a love story that is complicated, heartfelt, and incredibly sad. You know that neither Patroclus and Achilles will ever be happy without the other. Most people know what’s going to happen to Patroclus before the book even begins, but I think that works to its advantage. Because you know Patroclus is going to die, there’s always this sense of tragedy, even at the happiest moments. Because you know it can’t end well, there’s always this feeling of silent grief, hidden behind the words on the page.
After Patroclus dies, we still hear the rest of the story in his voice. The Greeks believed that you would not go to the Underworld without a proper burial, and so it makes sense within the context of the story that Patroclus’s spirit would still be around to see the end of Achilles’s tale. In fact, Patroclus hangs around quite a bit after Achilles is dead and buried, because Achilles’s asshat of a son, Pyrrhus, has Patroclus’s and Achilles’s ashes separated because he does not think Patroclus is worthy enough to be buried with his father. Thus Achilles goes to the Underworld and Patroclus is still floating around outside, a lost soul. What rotten luck – they couldn’t even get back together when both of them were dead. Probably my favorite part in the book is when Odysseus tries to convince Pyrrhus to put Achilles’s and Patroclus’s ashes back together. Pyrrhus, because he is such an asshat, does not want his great father’s reputation tarnished by being associated with Patroclus, who by his standards was essentially a nobody. Odysseus makes the argument that he can’t know who’s a nobody or not; fame after death is something that happens long after you’re dead, and no one has any control what is written down in legend. Then he says to Pyrrhus:
“Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”
(Pyrrhus) “I doubt it.”
(The Song of Achilles, page 364)
Oh, what obvious but wonderful irony. I love it. And it also is consistent with Odysseus’s personality, cunning and quick-thinking, always knowing just what to say.
If I had to make one complaint about the book, I’d say that the war parts are rather rushed, especially after Patroclus dies. It kind of jumps pretty quickly to Achilles’s death, and I wanted there to be more breathing room between the two. I also wasn’t extremely happy with how Madeline Miller handled the character Briseis – Briseis was Achilles’s war prize that Agamemnon took from him when he had to give the priest’s daughter up, and in the Iliad is what causes Achilles to leave the Greek army. In The Song of Achilles, Achilles is rather indifferent towards Briseis – it is Patroclus who gets angry at her capture; Achilles’s pride is what keeps him angry at Agamemnon, and most of the things Achilles does concerning Briseis are done for Patroclus’s sake. Briseis, in turn, falls in love with Patroclus, and her death at the end is extremely quick and coldhearted.
Other than that, this book was an extremely fascinating and enjoyable read. It should appeal to Greek mythology buffs and normal readers alike. I’d definitely recommend checking it out.