Era – Ancient History/Mythology
Heat Level – 2
Review – 3.5 stars
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
Review by LadyOfMisrule
Madeline Miller’s debut novel The Song of Achilles is a beautifully poetic take on the siege of Troy, told through the eyes of Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is often interpreted as being sexual, and Miller explores this fully. Without it being fully admitted most of the time, it is still achingly obvious how smitten he is. The offhand mentions of the turn of Achilles’ leg, or the glimpse of the inside of his wrist as he raises his sword to strike are imparted to the reader as though mere observations, but the message is clear. The feelings are reciprocated, and their relationship, shown to us in passing glimpses, is tacitly acknowledged amongst their peers – who did not treat homosexuality as a sin – if not openly referred to often.
The vision of Troy that Miller offers us is a strangely detached one; but then, the Trojan War was never really Achilles’ fight in the first place. Furthermore, Patroclus has gone down in history as Achilles’ most treasured friend above all else, and the motivation for his murder of Hector. In the novel Patroclus sees little of the battlefield, as an exiled son he is under no obligation to offer his services in the vanguard with the other Myrmidons and so instead chooses to make himself useful tending wounds in the medical tent.
The gods are of course present in the novel – Achilles was, after all, supposedly the son of a goddess – but they do not dominate the proceedings, their presence rather being felt around the edges of events, in the periphery. We see them only in glimpses, and their will is felt in the lack of wind or the appearance of plague. The Greek gods are interesting in that they are not above playing games with men, or coupling with mortals, and they suffer emotions in much the same way as we do, and yet they are so much more than people, something almost unknowable and very other. Miller’s use of archaic yet modern language really shines when it cones to Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thetis. We see Thetis through the eyes of Patroclus, as a great and terrible being, determined and wrathful. Patroclus shows his bravery by defying her will in order to be with Achilles.
Miller has skilfully rewritten the arrogant, sulky and intractable Achilles known to classical scholars as a thoughtful and compassionate man who, while fully aware of his own worth, makes the decisions as he does in order to secure his legacy, in the hope of earning his place with other great Grecian heroes among the stars. Achilles went to Troy with his eyes wide open; he knew he was destined to die there, but when the only alternative the prophecy offered was to live until old age but die in obscurity, he chose the path of a short life, with the promise of everlasting glory.
The whole novel is essentially a love poem written in honour of Achilles. The treatment Miller gives their relationship is beautiful – you are left with a strong sense that the star-crossed lovers are destined to be together – and in fairness, their timeless love story has lived through the ages for hundreds of years already!
An accessible, engaging and beautifully poetic debut from Miller than offers the reader a fly by biography of Achilles and an alternative perspective on the Trojan War. 3.5/5