Dammit. I knew what I was getting into when I started this book. But I didn’t expect Miller to make me actually care so damn much for the character who has ultimately been sidelined throughout the Iliad. But OMG SO GOOD. Like, “why are there onions in these pages?!” good.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES
by Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury, September 2011
Historical fiction, fantasy, mythology
Rated: 5/5 cookies
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. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, 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 then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
So I came to realize that The Iliad wasn’t the start and end of the Trojan War in its entirety. I suppose this is what happens when you read enough Greek mythology that all the tales just glomp into one whole epic myth about gods and heroes of legends. So when I started reading The Song of Achilles, I thought the whole of The Iliad began when the oath to Menelaus was given.
Turns out I was dead wrong.
The Iliad itself is what happens at the end of the Trojan War. We are taken in media res to the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles. To save anyone the grief of cracking their classics books, the argument pretty much went along the lines of this:
Uh. Well, I mean, that smolder battle happens between Hector and Achilles, too, but the first fight is between ACHILLES AND AGAMEMNON DAMMIT.
Agememnon: “Rah rah I’m the king and leader of the Greeks, I get the best bitches in town. I want THAT–”
Achilles: “Jokes on you, ya can’t get this one! You just opened up a can of whoop-ass plague, and look what happened. Priestesses are out of the question, bruh.”
Agamemnon: “Well if I can’t have that bitch, I’m taking yours!”
Achilles: “Haha–wait, nah, bruh. Briseis is MINE.”
Agamemnon: “AHAHA NOT ANYMORE!”
Achilles: *throws a tantrum* “Then fight YA OWN DAMN WAR. I’m out, bitches!”
Odysseus: “CAN YOU GUYS JUST–” *throws hands up and sighs in frustration* “I’m going to go see a man about a horse.”
And, of course, the Greeks start losing until Achilles gets back into battle, kills Hector, and dies from a wound to his heel (from pretty-boy Paris, of all people). But these deaths are enough for the Greeks to finally turn the tides of a drawn-out war. (Turns out all they had to do was listen to Odysseus and build a horse, but that’s another story…)
The unsung hero out of all this is Patroclus, who pretty much was the catalyst that brought Achilles back into the fray.
And this is where the heart of The Song of Achilles really is. It is a story told by Patroclus of a man, a hero, a demigod, a lover. It is a love story doomed to fail because of a war and a destiny, and it was told so well that even knowing the end, I wanted to keep going. I wanted Miller to wring my emotions dry and burn them into ashes. Much like her two heroes.
(Wow, dramatic much?)
Patroclus is a character that doesn’t really get limelight in the entire saga of the Trojan War, and Homer never really explains why Achilles loses his shit when Patroclus dies. And yet, the two were war companions in the epic battle (I love the Troy images, but I DO NOT FORGIVE THE MOVIE for making Patroclus a “cousin” of Achilles. Seriouslah? Get outta here.)
When I was younger and had read about the Trojan War, it always made me wonder if there was a relationship deeper than friendship between Patroclus and Achilles. I mean, scholars have pretty much delved and conjectured a romantic dynamic, so why couldn’t I conclude the same, right? WHY NOT SHIP THEM?
Patroclus and Achilles were totally gay for each other. That’s the only reason any of this makes sense.
And that relationship is what Miller gets at in The Song of Achilles. Now we have a background, and we have character development. Without it, I mean, honestly, as a person? Achilles is kind of a jerk.
BEAUTIFUL BEYOND BELIEF, but that doesn’t excuse Achilles’ nonexistent people skills, especially when it comes to treating heroes in a war. (I still don’t forgive him for Hector’s maltreatment, and I don’t even side with the Trojans half the time!)
Song of Achilles humanizes its hero. Yeah, we’re reminded all the time that Achilles is born of a goddess mother and is destined to be the “best of the Greeks,” but in Patroclus’ eyes, we see a gentler figure as well. We see someone who has a sense of humor, who has passion. We see Achilles do things for Patroclus in spite of what others might say or think. We see Achilles almost throw his whole reputation down the drain, just to keep Patroclus by his side.
It’s effing beautiful, really.
This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.
I love that Miller starts her book years before the war, so we do see the relationship blossom. I love that I recognize many of the characters throughout the book, as figures of the impending war, and also as heroes I’ve read about in other legends. Just like Circe, Odysseus comes in like a rock star in my eyes. If Madeline Miller finally decides to write a book of The Odyssey and focuses on Penelope, I’d read the eff out of that.
But mostly, I loved the love story. I knew it was doomed even before prophecy kicked in. I knew I was heading to the death of the couple. But my god, I still cried anyway. Too many onions in the pages, I suppose.
There was more to say, but for once we did not say it. There would be other times for speaking, tonight and tomorrow and all the days after that. He let go of my hand.
5 out of 5 cookies! Honestly, between the two I’ve read of Miller’s, this was my favorite.