Review - The Song of Achilles

book cover

The Song of Achilles

by Madeline Miller

My rating:

Tags: Ancient Greece Myth

Posted in Book Reviews on May 3, 2013

The love between Achilles and Patroclus is one of the great classics of Greek literature. For gay men, it’s a story we can look to as proof that there have always been men who loved other men, and they weren’t always as reviled as we sometimes feel in modern society. It’s no wonder that contemporary authors keep returning to the story to try and reinterpret it.

“The Song of Achilles” gives us the story from Patroclus’ point of view. We follow him from early childhood, when his aggressive father puts him forth as one of Helen’s suitors at the age of nine, through the accidental killing of a noble boy which sends him into exile, where he meets Achilles. As the two boys grow into young men, love blooms, and Achilles remains devoted to Patroclus, despite the objections of his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis.

Although Thetis is determined that Achilles fulfill his destiny as the greatest of all Greeks, when news of the war with Troy comes, she spirits her son away into hiding to keep him from going. Patroclus tracks him down, to find Achilles in drag and secretly married to a princess. Soon Odysseus also discovers where Achilles is hiding and the young man is finally convinced that he must join the battle to fulfill his destiny. While Patroclus has no desire to fight, he knows that his place is by Achilles’ side, even though he knows that the hero is destined not to survive the war.

The events of the battle of Troy unfold much as they are related in the Illiad, only now we see them through Patroclus’ eyes. We see how Agamemnon’s poor leadership and jealousy of Achilles’ prowess leads them both down the path to conflict, which ultimately leads to the warrior’s withdrawal from battle. In this key moment, we see how Achilles’ own determination to meet his fate is forged.

Unlike other modern interpretations of the Illiad, “The Song of Achilles” does not relegate the gods to abstract ideas, but rather makes them very real and an integral part of the story. The two young men spend several years in the wilderness with the centaur Chiron, and then of course there is Achilles’ mother, Thetis. The goddess watches over Achilles and, being divine, she can see everything her son does. While the erotic content of this book is minimal, there’s enough to strongly suggest that Achilles and Patroclus enjoy a physical relationship, formed when they were in the one place Thetis couldn’t see them, when they were with Chiron. Imagine doing the nasty with your boyfriend knowing his mother could see you. No wonder Patroclus fears Thetis so much.

Retelling a well known story can be no easy task. You can’t very well change the tragic ending, or even the major events. The most you can really do is try to bring a fresh perspective to the tale. By giving us Patroclus’ point of view, “The Song of Achilles” does achieve that, and it does it in a very readable style that doesn’t attempt the poetic cadence of many Homeric translations. The portrayal of Patroclus as a less-than-heroic figure, at least until the very end, is a little different and personally something of a disappointment, but the contrast it creates with Achilles definitely adds to the story. The contrast between the shy, gentle Patroclus and the supremely self-confident warrior Achilles couldn’t be greater. This is definitely a worthy addition to the collection of Achilles lore.

“The Song of Achilles” is available from Amazon.