The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, org. published in 2012, HarperCollins
“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”
The Song of Achilles is a story of love, of the love between Achilles and Patroclus. While not explicitly stated in The Iliad that the two were lovers, such an interpretation is popular, and probably even more so after this book.
It’s both a beautiful retelling of events some of us know well (if you’ve read The Iliad (I haven’t, woops)) and the story of Patroclus and Achilles growing up together. If you’re looking for something like The Iliad, this is not it. If you’re looking for the story of two boys, then men, loving each other enough to make the skies tremble, this is it.
It’s always a little unpleasant to watch someone with fighting, death and glory woven into his destiny, into his blood, give way to that violence. To see him kill as if it were nothing, to see him accept that this is what he was born for; glory and honor in battle. It’s easy to make Achilles one-dimensional, but there’s a complexity to the character of Achilles in this, that we don’t often see. It’s as if he is somehow two people all at once; mortal, gentle, just and fair, but also a god, indestructible, angry, resentful and arrogant. Fighting comes easily to him, killing is what he was intended for, but through the eyes of Patroclus we see it is not so, that he is more than that. His glory is not that he is part-god, it’s that he manages to be both man and immortal and strike an uneasy balance. The balance topples, it breaks, but he manages to be both. Loving and deadly.
“’Name one hero who was happy. […] You can’t.’”
So much has been lost through the ages from Ancient Greece to now, when it comes to the subject of honor. I don’t cry for that loss. Honor is something else now than it was then. Someone risking their life, the lives of others, someone who willfully lets his brothers and kinsmen go to their deaths, because he feels he has been wronged (and he has, he isn’t mistaken), well, it’s far from life now. It’s far from anything we might see someone do today. But I felt Miller explained it in a way that made it less arrogant and foreign as it could’ve been. Patroclus does that, he’s our way into the story, and a very modern one at that. He represents a lot of “softer” values; he doesn’t like fighting, he’s a healer, he’s the perfect contrast to Achilles. I felt this was a little odd, I find it extremely implausible that he wouldn’t have wanted (or have been forced) to become a competent fighter, but making him such a character means he can help make a very different world understandable to us.
It’s detailed in its references and, I think, very well researched, but it’s not a subject I know a lot of, so I could be mistaken. Miller weaves a strong, atmospheric tale, that mingles myth, legend and realism very well. It drops names and titles, as such a novel should, but you never lose sight of the story or the important characters, it doesn’t drown in it, which is a strength. And the language is soft, clear and beautiful. Reading it is resting in a small sliver of sunshine, knowing nightfall is coming.
And more than anything, it makes you believe in a love that defies the gods, a love that cannot be quelled. The legend in this story is not Achilles, nor is it Patroclus, rather it is what they share. Achilles is the sun that everything centers on, but Patroclus grounds it, makes such a bright, shining presence tangible.
Soulmates, two halves of a hole. These two are, in this, the quintessence of such a thing.
“I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.“