The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Most readers would be familiar with the abduction of Helen of Sparta [perhaps better known later as Helen of Troy] which led to the Trojan War – and with Achilles the hero of the war and the greatest of all the Greek warriors.  Achilles was the son of Peleus, King of the Myrmidons, and the sea nymph Thetis.  Although Zeus and Poseidon – both gods – were competing for the hand of Thetis, they each withdrew their interest when they were told that Thetis would bear a son greater than his father.  Consequently, she was married to Peleus.  The son born to them was Achilles – whose ‘beauty shone like a flame, vital and bright, drawing my eye against my will’ [25] and whose prowess and fame far eclipsed his father’s.

The words quoted above are spoken by the narrator of the book Patroclus [pronounced correctly only by Achilles: Pa–tro-clus] – son of a minor king – who later was the friend, companion and lover of Achilles.  Patroclus, at age twelve and after accidentally killing another boy, was exiled to Phthia as payment for the boy’s death; exile meant that he would have no parents, no family name, no inheritance.  It is there in Phthia that he meets Achilles who ‘bestowed the long-awaited honour [of companionship] upon the most unlikely of us, small and ungrateful and probably cursed’ [37].

Thus, the story of Achilles and Patroclus begins and gradually unfolds over some fifteen years.  At its heart, The Song of Achilles is a love story and a rather beautiful one at that.  The love and friendship between Achilles and Patroclus is played out against the backdrop of the Trojan War and the lovers’ knowledge of the prophecy that Achilles would live only until Hector – son of Priam King of the Trojans – was killed.  Like the sword of Damocles – an allusion to the ever-present threat faced by people in power – their awareness that Hector could be killed at any time and thus bring about Achilles’ death weighed heavily on the lovers.  As Patroclus pleads ‘[Hector] must not die.  He must live, because his life … is the final dam before Achilles’ own blood will flow’ [318].

But as a counterpoint to the love story is the cruelty and misogyny of Ancient Greece.  Women and slaves are treated cruelly and without mercy and the author does not shy away from depicting the reality of life in those times.  On one occasion, because the high priest Calchas believes the gods have been offended, ‘an enormous sacrifice’ is demanded.  A young priestess – daughter of Agamemnon – is selected to be the sacrifice.  Unaware of her fate and believing she is to be married, she naively and smilingly enters the tent where the sacrifice is to take place.  Without warning, Diomedes’ ‘hand is on her now, huge against her slender collar-bone … the knife’s edge fell on to her throat, and blood spurted over the altar, spilled down her dress’ [192].

Nor is the reality of war avoided.  One clash between the Greeks and the Trojans is described as –

The front lines collided in an explosion of sound, a burst of spraying splinters and bronze and blood.   A writhing mass of men and screams, sucking up rank after rank like Charybdis. [223]

Traditionalists may argue that there is no historical evidence to suggest that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers; and that modern writers and classicists tend to interpret the relationship through the lens of their own cultures and times.  But there are those who consider it to have been a sexual relationship – including Plato.  The author of this book believes that it was homophobia which erased the possibility of the relationship’s sexual component.  In her Foreword, Madeline Miller writes that ‘while centring it as a gay love story may not thrill people’, she wanted the book to be one ‘with room for everyone who might want to come in’ [xi].

Leaving aside the historical questions, it is indeed a wonderful book – replete with classic history and imagery – and beautifully written.  The love between the protagonists is expressed sensitively and without prurient detail; but alongside their love is the cruelty of a long-drawn out war between the Trojans and the Greeks and the explicit misogyny.  It is a book well worth the reading and is highly recommended.

The Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 and the author was shortlisted for the Stonewall Writer of the Year 2012.  This edition is a special edition to mark the novel’s 10th anniversary.   Madeline Miller says of the book that its beginning was in the early months of 2000 when she began writing her master’s thesis on the way modern scholarship discussed the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.  She quickly realised that the subject could not be contained within the confines of a thesis and The Song of Achilles was created.

The Song of Achilles

[2021]

by Madeline Miller

Bloomsbury

ISBN 978 15266 4817 4

$32.99; 352pp

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