Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book 63: Song of Achilles

"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."

Dates read: June 20-23, 2016

Rating: 7/10

If you've been to school in the Western world, you've probably at some point read (or at least been assigned to read) parts of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I've "read" them (some actual reading supplemented by SparkNoting) and I honestly don't get the hype. The Odyssey is the better of the two for me, and I can understand better its enduring appeal: an adventure story with a charming and quick-witted hero. The Iliad though...war stories don't traditionally move me, and this one just bored me to tears.

But for better or for worse, the Homeric epics are a bedrock part of the Western literary canon. Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles looks at The Iliad from a fresh perspective: that of Patroclus, Achilles' closest companion. Since this is a retelling of a classic story (a genre to which I am predisposed), we already know how it's going to play out: Agamemnon will steal a slave girl claimed by Achilles, leading to the hero refusing to fight for the Greeks, leading to Patroclus donning his armor and being slain by Hector of Troy, leading to Achilles killing Hector and dragging him around the walls of his city, only to be killed himself by an arrow from Hector's brother Paris. What's different is what comes before and between.

As most of us know, it was not uncommon in Ancient Greek life for older men to have sexual relationships with younger men. Homosexual relationships between men of the same age, however, were rarer. When I was taught The Iliad, even in college, the bond between Patroclus and Achilles was usually described as just a deep friendship (lip service was paid to the idea they could have been lovers but it was never taught as being the more persuasive interpretation). Miller's novel, however, roots itself in the alternate interpretation: she presents us with Achilles, the most gifted warrior in Greece, as a man in a loving and stable lifelong relationship with Patroclus.

It would actually be more accurate to say she presents us with Patroclus as the romantic partner of Achilles: the story belongs to Patroclus, it is told through his eyes. Patroclus as created by Miller is a gentle soul, a disappointment to his aggressive father, who is banished when he kills another child purely by accident. He is sent to Peleus, father of Achilles, to be fostered, and is chosen by Achilles of all the young men at court to be his companion. Their relationship only gradually becomes romantic, much to the disgust of Achilles' river goddess mother, Thetis. She conspires more than once to break the couple apart, but their love is too strong and they remain together until the end. Miller explains Achilles' rage over the theft of his slave girl as being not about being deprived of a lover, but as being disrespected as the greatest soldier in the army by having his rightfully-claimed prize taken away.

I found it a much more enjoyable take on the story than the original. Miller really gets the time to develop Patroclus and Achilles as characters in depicting them from boyhood all the way through adulthood. She paints a very devoted relationship between them: though both briefly experiment with sex with women, they never stray from each other and Achilles refuses to leave Patroclus despite strong maternal pressure to do so. Since Miller's Patroclus isn't a skilled or enthusiastic warrior and instead serves the Greek contingent at Troy as a healer, most of the battlefield scenes that I find so boring to read are left out entirely. This is a solid read for fans of historical fiction and/or classical retellings.

Tell me, blog friends...did you have to read the Homeric poems in school at any point? Did you like them more than I did?

One year ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology


  1. "Song of Achilles" was probably one of my most unexpected enjoyable reads of the past year. It was not only a great retelling, but also just beautifully written... and I totally agree with what you said about the original Iliad, so I was just as surprised as you were. :) Great review!

    1. I grabbed it off a Kindle sale without expecting much and got really invested in it...I feel like it's a bit of a sleeper hit, I've seen it pop up on bookish Insta several times and I always get excited when I do because it's really worth reading!