The Song Of Achilles By Madeline Miller
This book is quite possibly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I’ve always been a fan of Greek mythology and I read Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad when I was still in school, so it’s always been a genre I’ve enjoyed. So when I found out this book was a retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus I knew I just had to try it, and I am so glad that I did!
The Iliad, for those who don’t know, is the story of the Trojan war, and of the hero Achilles’ struggles and eventual death. It’s a well-known story even to those who don’t particularly like Greek mythology – everyone knows about the Trojan horse strategy, for example – and so I was a bit apprehensive about the story not meeting Homer’s high standards.
I needn’t have worried!
This book was so well written that I quite often forgot I was reading a retelling of a great epic and, instead, I felt like I was experiencing this story for the first time through an entirely fresh perspective. This book has everything – poetic descriptions, heartbreaking foreshadowing and plot twists (not really twists since we all know what happens, but you forget that as you read!), and poignant dialogue – and you find yourself sucked into the world of Troy.
”They grinned, loving every inch of their miraculous prince: his gleaming hair, his deadly hands, his nimble feet. They leaned towards him, like flowers to the sun, drinking in his lustre. It was as Odysseus had said: he had light enough to make heroes of them all.”
The setting is placed so well in everything, from the dialogue to the descriptions of the surroundings, that you actually feel like you’re there, seeing and feeling and doing everything the characters are.
Finally, last of all: a long spear, ash sapling peeled of bark and polished until it glowed like grey flame. From Chiron, Peleus said, handing it to his son. We bent over it, our fingers trailing its surface as if to catch the centaur’s lingering presence. Such a fine gift would have taken weeks of Chiron’s deft shaping; he must have begun it almost the day that we left. Did he know, or only guess at Achilles’ destiny? As he lay alone in his rose-coloured cave, had some glimmer of prophecy come to him? Perhaps he simply assumed: a bitterness of habit, of boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder.
Yet this beautiful spear had been fashioned not in bitterness, but love. Its shape would fit no one’s hand but Achilles’, and its heft could suit no one’s strength but his. And though the point was keen and deadly, the wood itself slipped under our fingers like the slender oiled strut of a lyre.
However, as good as the setting and the characterisation all were, the best thing about this book was how the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was depicted.
Generally in retellings of the story of Troy (like the movie Troy), the homosexual relationship between the two warriors is often washed over and repainted as a bit more of a bromance than anything else. After all, how can these manly warriors be deadly and strong and gay? Surely not! Real men aren’t gay, are they? Well, that’s how this story is usually told, but Miller does an amazing job showing the full relationship between the two men, something I was afraid wouldn’t happen.
Will you come with me?’ he asked.
The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life, I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death.
Yes, I whispered. Yes.
Miller never actually goes into explicit detail. We don’t get smutty sex scenes and we don’t have a dramatic scene where Achilles chases after Petrocles in the rain and they declare loud and passionate love for each other as rain runs in sensual rivulets down their heaving pectorals. However, we get so many real and intimate moments that it left my mouth dry and my heart aching for more.
”This morning he had leapt onto my bed and pressed his nose against mine. ‘Good morning,’ he’d said. I remembered the heat of him against my skin.”
Miller uses the differences in the two men’s characters in order to fit them together in a way no one else in the book does. Achilles is good but rigid, honest but blunt. Patroclus is much softer and more open. He brings out a more gentle good in Achilles, almost as if he’s Achilles’ conscience. However, once Petrocles is no longer around, Achilles hardens to a greater degree. Without Petrcoles he no longer sees the reason to be soft or good beyond duty.
“The room turned grey, then white. The bed felt cold without him, and too large. I heard no sounds, and the stillness frightened me. It is like a tomb. I rose and rubbed my limbs, slapped them awake, trying to ward off a rising hysteria. This is what it will be, every day, without him.”
In fact, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was so well done that I managed to forget what happens and immerse myself completely in the writing of the whole thing. By the time I remembered, it was already too late and I was left sobbing as I took in the final words on the page.
Miller manages to use Petrocles’ character in order to make Achilles more than just a hero. It’s sort of how I think of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, he’s a hero but human too, and that’s what I feel Miller did in this book. She smoothed out some of the usual heroic blusters and highlighted that, in the end, he was also just a man who didn’t always get it right. Yes, he did the right thing most of the time, but not all of the time.
”I stopped watching for ridicule, the scorpion’s tail hidden in his words. He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”
The entire journey Achilles goes through during the Trojan war is long and brutal and real and not all burning glory like some movie adaptations would have you believe. You can actually see him being changed slowly as the war progresses, which is very like what would happen to any soldier in the middle of a war. He loses some of his goodness, and his lightness, and makes some choices that the reader, and Petrocles, won’t always agree with. However, Petrocles always sticks by Achilles to the very end, knowing that wherever one goes, the other must follow. It’s pure love between the two characters and it’s ultimately heartbreaking. When Achilles is grieving for Petrocles, the reader grieves with him. I’ve never felt my heart break as much as I did with this book and I honestly can’t wait to read it all over again.
“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”