What a moving and memorable story this is. It is both a love story and a war story, and I think it will satisfy those who like either genre. The primary focus is on Achilles and his “therapon”, or brother-in-arms, Patroclus. It starts out a little slow, because the author must supply the background to the events leading to the Trojan War. But as soon as Patroclus and Achilles meet (when they are ten years old), the story grabs hold and doesn’t let go. This not only is a reflection of the enduring nature of the story of Homer’s Iliad; it is also a testament to the skill with which the author re-fashions the story of two of the many players in that thrilling saga.
Achilles, as you may remember from reading or from ogling Brad Pitt in the movie Troy, is the son of the human king Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis. He was known as the greatest warrior of his time, called Aristos Achaion (“Best of the Greeks”) by his admirers. He was sent to Chiron the Centaur for training in all things godly, and he stayed there until he was called to go to Troy and help fight for the return of the beautiful Helen, stolen in the night from her husband Menelaus. In the ninth year of the war, Achilles had a falling out with Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus, ruler of the largest Greek kingdom Mycenae, and the overall commander of the Greek forces). Achilles refused to fight any longer, until a tragic development changed his mind.
In The Iliad, we don’t get many details about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. What we do know is that Patroclus made a huge sacrifice for the honor of Achilles, and Achilles thereupon learned a huge lesson about the relative worth of love and glory.
In The Song of Achilles, Miller takes us much deeper into the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, creating a love story that meshes so well into the macho, man-and-god-driven world of The Iliad that you never have the slightest cause to doubt its rightness. She begins with their childhoods, continuing through the relatively halcyon time after they meet but before the two reach adulthood, and then through their nine years in combat.
When Achilles and Patroclus become involved in the Trojan War, it changes them. Odysseus reminds Patroclus of the semi-divine nature of Achilles, that he was bred as “a weapon, a killer.” And Patroclus becomes the one who helps Achilles cope with this role:
I learned to sleep through the day so that I would not be tired when he returned; he always needed to talk then, to tell me down to the last detail about the faces and the wounds and the movements of men. And I wanted to be able to listen, to digest the bloody images, to paint them flat and unremarkable onto the vase of posterity. To release him from it and make him Achilles again.”
But alas, the gods would not be prevented from playing out their rivalries on the fields of men. Achilles and Patroclus were wedded to their fates as strongly as they were wedded to each other in spirit and flesh.
Discussion: On her webpage, the author says she was inspired to write this book because of her desire to find out more about the bond between the two young men:
I wanted to understand what it was about Patroclus and their relationship that could create that kind of crisis. Although Homer tells us what his characters do, he doesn’t tell us much of why they do it. Who was Achilles? And why did he love Patroclus so much? Writing the novel was my way of answering that question.”
She researched Ancient Greek texts, and added her own imagination to supply what was missing. What she ends up with is a story of passion and devotion, honor and glory, and yes, even pride and prejudice, that shows why the outlines of this epic tale have endured and entranced since the 8th century BCE.
I especially love how Miller described Patroclus, her narrator, feeling the newness of his happiness with Achilles, even before he understood why:
And as we swam, or played, or talked, a feeling would come. It was almost like fear, in the way it filled me, rising in my chest. It was almost like tears, in how swiftly it came. But it was neither of those, buoyant where they were heavy, bright where they were dull. I had known contentment before, brief snatches of time in which I pursued solitary pleasure: skipping stones or dicing or dreaming. But in truth, it had been less a presence than an absence, a laying aside of dread… This feeling was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt… This and this and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender or too slow. This and this and this! … I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.”
And then, when Patroclus does understand, she conveys through her syntax, not only a reminder of that earlier moment but also the radiant happiness suffusing the present, too much even for words:
We ate, then ran to the river to wash. I savored the miracle of being able to watch him openly, to enjoy the play of dappled light on his limbs, the curving of his back as he dove beneath the water. Later, we lay on the riverbank, learning the lines of each other’s bodies anew. This, and this and this. We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but each other.”
And all of “this and this and this” was between a boy known for his astounding beauty (Achilles), and a boy, Patroclus, who was clumsy and inept and shy and couldn’t believe his great gift of love from someone who could have had anyone.
Besides love, Miller also tackles other great themes of the Greek myths:
- The unfairness of life: As the teacher of Achilles, Chiron, points out, “There is no law that gods must be fair, Achilles.”
- How easy it is to manipulate men by appealing to their fears, and/or by their desire for wealth and reputation.
- The fickle nature of truth: Odysseus (called Ulysses in Latin) remind Achilles and Patroclus that “True is what men believe….”
- And of course, there is the whole question of free will and the meaning of life. If everything is pre-ordained by the gods, or worse yet, just a by-product of their own conflicts and game-playing, why should we endure the grief that comes to us? [Imagine if the whole Bible read like "The Book of Job!" How could one sustain faith?]
As for the writing, I was greatly impressed. Sometimes Miller’s writing is astonishing in its beauty, evocativeness, and echoes of Homer:
The ship’s boards were still sticky with new resin. We leaned over the railing to wave our last farewell, the sun-warm wood pressed against our bellies. The sailors heaved up the anchor, square and chalky with barnacles, and loosened the sails. Then they took their seats at the oars that fringed the boat like eyelashes, waiting for the count. The drums began to beat, and the oars lifted and fell, taking us to Troy.”
Or this, when, at Troy, Achilles returns to their tent after a day on the battlefield:
He is red and red and rust-read, up to his elbows, his knees, his neck, as if he has swum in the vast dark chambers of a heart.”
She doesn’t just imbue war with beauty, but when Patroclus is on the field, she brings it alive, with the deep fear and momentary panic; the excitement; the claustrophobia inside the armor; the smells; the noise; the resignation to death if it comes, and the overwhelming relief that washes over you like an ocean wave when it doesn’t.
Evaluation: If you think Jane Austen had the original word on pride and prejudice, give Homer a whirl. Or for a briefer exposure to the Trojan War that sounds more contemporary, and brings it to astounding life, try this beautifully-crafted re-telling by Madeline Miller. It richly deserves the accolades it has garnered.
Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012
Note: This novel won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary prizes, which honors the best novel of the year written by a woman in the English language.