The Song of Achilles is the 40th book I’ve read this year, and so hits my Goodreads challenge for 2018 – hurrah! It’s not a book I was previously aware of, though it won the Orange Prize in 2012 and has a massive following online. The cover merely caught my eye in Waterstones in September and I picked it up with a few other purchases.
I’m so glad I did. I’ve had a great reading year, discovering a few new gems and this has undoubtedly been one of them. I’m unsure if you technically can spoil a story that’s been out there for millennia but if you’re totally unfamiliar with the legend of Achilles and still want to read the book, you may want to stop reading this review now.
Although it is a retelling of the epic events of The Iliad (you could technically call it Iliad fanfiction if you wanted to, as some reviewers have) the book is, first and foremost, a love story. It tells of the coming of age, falling in love and journey to war of Achilles and Patroclus. Homer, incidentally, never explicitly casts them as lovers in The Iliad, but given Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’s death, it certainly can be inferred that they were a little more than the best buds some classicists are determined to see them as.
Madeline Miller takes their story right back to the beginning and the novel is told directly through Patroclus’s eyes the whole way through. Patroclus, the undersized and unloved son of King Menoitius first sees Achilles at the great Olympic games, when his father cruelly points out that this is what a real son should look like. He is later forcibly thrown into Achilles’ company when he is exiled from his father’s court for accidentally killing a bully in self-defence.
Initially, he is determined to resent Achilles but gradually his dislike is worn down and they tentatively become friends, with Achilles claiming him as a sworn companion. As they grow into teenagers, the close bond they feel deepens beyond friendship and when they eventually go to live as students of the centaur Chiron, they take the next step and become lovers. Together, utterly devoted to each other, they face down the disapproval of Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, as well as the forces of destiny when they are summoned to join Agamemnon in the war to reclaim Helen from Troy; where it is prophesised that Achilles will die soon after Hector of Troy falls.
“Name one hero who was happy.”
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.
“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.
“I know. They never let you be famous AND happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.
“I’m going to be the first.” He took my palm and held it to his. “Swear it.”
“Because you’re the reason. Swear it.”
“I swear it,” I said, lost in the high color of his cheeks, the flame in his eyes.
“I swear it,” he echoed.
We sat like that a moment, hands touching. He grinned.
“I feel like I could eat the world raw.
They become men during the ten-year siege, hoping to outsmart the Gods and seize as many days together as they can. Achilles cements his reputation as a hero, while Patroclus shows that his greatness is in his empathy. Determinedly, they resolve to keep Hector alive – ‘Why should I kill him?’ Achilles asks. ‘He’s done nothing to me!’ – and the war goes on and on.
It’s not until Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel, and the latter refuses to fight at all until his pride is appeased, that their plan fails. The Greek forces are decimated by the Trojans and Patroclus, desperate to prevent more deaths and desperate to preserve Achilles’ reputation before he becomes hated by the men he should be leading, takes desperate measures. If Achilles won’t fight, he will go onto the field in Achilles’ armour and the lead the men that way; saving pride and battle both. He does save the battle but loses his life at Hector’s hands and, in his crazed grief at losing his soulmate, Achilles runs headlong to his own death too – savagely butchering Hector on the way.
I am not ordinarily a big reader of romances, outside of the classics. I often find that the language is just too cheesy, the plots just a bit too convenient and miraculous, but this story never felt like that at any point. Miller’s prose does verge on the slightly-purple in places, but it is so beautifully written and so achingly emotional that you can’t help but let it burrow right into your heart. These characters are legends; you know that they cannot have a happy ending, but you desperately root for it all the same! Their love feels tender and genuine, not constructed purely for entertainment.
“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, & our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.”
I genuinely cried at the end and I don’t think I’ve shed tears for any other book this year. The plot device of having Patroclus remain behind as an untethered spirit was ingenuous, as it helped the reader see the aftermath of his death but retained all the emotional aspect of the relationship with Achilles. The raw, despairing agony Achilles’ shows and his total disregard for life without Patroclus was really gut-wrenching.
I couldn’t get to the last page quick enough, terrified that Patroclus would remain a trapped spirit with no grave marker (Pyrrhus callously determined not to let him share his father’s fame) and so the two would never be reunited. I don’t think I could have born it if Thetis hadn’t at last shown a little compassion and let him be with her son. The tiny allusion to their reunion in the afterlife was exquisitely bittersweet and beautiful.
It’s definitely been one of my favourite reads of 2018 and is absolutely a book that I will reread in the future. I’m looking forward to moving on to Madeline Miller’s book about Circe soon too.
It’s an emphatic 5/5 – I’d give it six if I could – and it’s going right up on my top shelf!