Book Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Title: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Released: August 28, 2012 (Paperback)
Description: Achilles, “the best of all the Greeks”, son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful, irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath.
They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes in Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
While the myth of Achilles and Patroclus is known in wider circles, this portion is cut for room. If you are not familiar with the myth, it’s best to read this book with blind eyes because I will go all out on this and talk about it in great detail, including the preconceptions I had about the myth, and everything in between. This isn’t necessarily a spoiler warning, but I’d proceed with caution nevertheless.
For how this book was written, it’s a choice to write from Patroclus’s point of view rather than Achilles himself. However, I’m glad that this decision was made. Growing up, I was only ever aware of Achilles’s deeds, his legendary rage, and the iconic weakness – metaphorically and figuratively. I was taught to believe that Patroclus was just a “war buddy” or “childhood friend” whose ashes were mixed with Achilles when he’d finally die. Instead, I was taught to focus on how manly and how God-like Achilles was.
One cannot be without the other, especially in terms of their stories, but in this book, they become human. Suddenly, one will forget that Achilles is half God and realizes that, if anything, Achilles is someone who became drunk of his own hubris while Patroclus grounded him. He grounded Achilles that kept him as close to earth as possible, even when Achilles did things that are beyond anything that’s normal. However, for all that it’s worth, there are moments of insanity that even Patroclus couldn’t help, but Achilles loved hard as he fought.
In my experience, historical fiction tends to be written as close to the current vernacular as possible. Sometimes, that type of writing takes me out of the scenes, and other times when it’s tried to write close to the time period, it tries a little too hard. However, there’s something extremely lyrical with how brisk it is. There’s a lot of care and love put into the words of the scenes, especially when it came to the moments between Patroclus and Achilles. While it is broken up into traditional chapters, the transition makes sense to me especially in the grand scheme of things. Some may not be comfortable with it, but it worked for me.
Though, when it came to the battle scenes, it’s clear that it’s a lot stiffer and it’s clearly not the author’s strong suit. Honestly, I can’t really blame them for that because even though Achilles did do a lot of raiding and fighting, the focus was absolutely not on his battles – it was the human side of the battle. It was about Patroclus attaining the friendships and care of the Myrmidons, and the captured women, as he learned how to perform surgery. Patroclus made it clear that he’s not some “war buddy” or just a “childhood friend”. He was someone who lived and loved and gave up his life for Achilles’s stubbornness.
The book gave a strong feeling of softness and love when the two were together and when they fought with each other, it’s absolutely a lover’s quarrel than anything serious… until it became so.
The hardest thing to accept in this book, especially after growing up with Patroclus and loving Achilles as hard as he did, was the tragedy of their story. As it’s inevitable, they would be separated by death. The question then becomes: how could we see the remaining events if the narrator is dead? And it’s that simple: have Patroclus’s ghost watch everything that happens thereafter. From Achilles dragging Hector’s body around, to the battle of Scamander, we remain with the others and even after Achilles gets killed by Paris.
And the horrific thing is we’re still not done. When we meet Pyrrus, it’s here we see the themes of the story culminate: when Pyrrus was born, Thetis took him away from Deidamia to train him as a “God” in the way Achilles had never done so. Throughout the story, Thetis made it clear to Patroclus that she did not like him – could it be homophobia or the fact that she thought he took him away from his greatness? It could’ve been both – I appreciate it wasn’t that clear because as soon as Pyrrus was born, she pretty much went away unless it’s to see her son as a mother. But when this child comes back as a warrior and finishes the war his father started, it’s clear that he had no humanity in him. Even when he brutally kills Briseis, it’s learned fairly quickly that all Pyrrus thinks about is the blood and gore that Achilles craved but had nothing to tie him back to Earth. He was the killing machine Thetis had always wanted but took until his inhuman deeds when she even decided to reach out to Patroclus’s ghost.
And this is when it got to me.
I’ve known from the beginning that this is to be a tragic story between Achilles and Patroclus. The real ‘focus’ of the story was the human aspect of Achilles and Patroclus and that much, I understood what I was signing up for. But, what ended up getting to me the most was the scene where Patroclus explained to Thetis how human Achilles was and what he truly meant to Patroclus.
Patroclus shares stories about the humanity he saw within Achilles when no one else has. Because of his humanity, it’s what kept him tethered to the world and why not the deeds of his God-side is what history will remember, but the human side of Achilles when he went mad after the death of Patroclus. His love for Patroclus will remain tested and true and while it is human to admire someone as powerful and as built as Achilles, the fact that he loved is what will remain as his legacy. Without Patroclus, Achilles could not have loved and he would not be as human.
For as much Thetis didn’t want to accept Patroclus, especially at first, she would eventually carve his name with Achilles’s name on the memorial that was built for him. She understood that until Patroclus’s name was carved, the two couldn’t be with each other in the afterlife. Without one, there couldn’t be the other. And that got to me.
It got to me not just because of the tragedy of it all, but because Patroclus saw something in Achilles that not even his own mother didn’t; not even his own father would see such a wonderful man. Everyone saw Achilles as a soldier, a God-like being, the one who took down Hector in a rage but Patroclus saw a man who wanted to be a hero with a happy ending.
And in a way, he got the happy ending.
While they couldn’t love as freely as they wanted in life, they could love in the afterlife forevermore. Knowing that time could finally go by and they would always be at each other’s side, as long as their ashes are mixed, as long as their names are mixed, they will always be with each other until the end of time, and maybe even longer.
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Posted on April 17, 2021, in ★★★★★ – 5 Stars, Book Reviews, Book Series, Oneshots and tagged greek mythology, LGBT+, madeline miller, retelling, the song of achilles. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.