The Song of Achilles
I picked up The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller because of the read-along at Care’s Online Book Club and once I started it, I couldn’t stop reading. It is definitely an easy read and one you don’t have to have prior knowledge of the story to enjoy, although there are points where knowing what is going to happen gives the action a more melancholy resonance.
Told from the point of view of Patroclus, this is a love story. He sees Achilles as a musician and a lover first, and later as the greatest warrior of his age. His perspective gives a new slant to certain parts of the story, like his nine-year-old’s view on the negotiations leading to the marriage of Menelaus and Helen. Because she gets to choose and “spoke without hesitation,” I thought we were going to get the version of the story in which Helen loves her husband and is kidnapped by Paris against her will. But because of seeing through Patroclus’ eyes, I was left as he is, “thick with disappointment: I had not even been allowed to glimpse Helen’s fabled face.”
The perspective of Patroclus lets us see things we might not have seen before, though, like how Achilles makes his complicated position easier for his friend: “I stopped watching for ridicule, the scorpion’s tail hidden in his words. He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?” Patroclus humanizes the young Achilles, like when he tells him that his mother wants him to “be a god” and reveals that “his face twisted with embarrassment, and in spite of itself my heart lightened. It was such a boyish response. And so human. Parents, everywhere.”
Patrocles portrays Chiron as a good teacher in that he took care to find out what his pupils most wanted to learn. There’s a poignant moment when he asks Patroclus if he wants to learn to be a soldier, and Patroclus declines.
One of the many charms of the book is that readers fall in love with Achilles as inexorably as Patroclus does. The first time the two of them give in to their feelings and make the relationship physical, Achilles asks if Patroclus is sorry and after they assure each other they are not:
“There was silence, then, and I did not care about the damp pallet or how sweaty I was. His eyes were unwavering, green flecked with gold. A surety rose in me, lodged in my throat. I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.
If I had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.
As if he had heard me, he reached for my hand. I did not need to look; his fingers were etched into my memory, slender and petal-veined, strong and quick and never wrong.
‘Patroclus,’ he said. He was always better with words than I.”
The most melancholy resonance of this re-telling with what I already knew comes the first time they hear the prophecy that the doom of Achilles will come when he kills Hector and Achilles responds by saying “Well why should I kill him? He’s done nothing to me.” This is followed by Patroclus’ narration: “For the first time then, I felt a kind of hope.”
Even though we know how this story has to end, though, we can be lulled as Patroclus is by the way even war can get to be something a person is used to:
“Over us, every second, hung the terror of Achilles’ destiny, while the murmurs of war among the gods grew louder. But even I could not fill each minute with fear. I have heard that men who live by a waterfall cease to hear it—in such a way did I learn to live beside the rushing torrent of his doom. The days passed, and he lived. The months passed, and I could go a whole day without looking over the precipice of his death. The miracle of a year, then two.”
As you would expect, Patroclus has more agency in his own version than is usual in re-tellings of this story. I would like to leave him “in bed beside Achilles. His face is innocent, sleep-smoothed and sweetly boyish. I love to see it. This is his truest self, earnest and guileless, full of mischief but without malice. He is lost in Agamemnon and Odysseus’ wily double meanings, their lies and games of power. They have confounded him, tied him to a stake and baited him. I stroke the soft skin of his forehead. I would untie him if I could. If he would let me.”
Patroclus does what he can, and Achilles does what he must, and their story ends the way it always has.
It is a sweet version, though, told with love and sympathy for the human half of the greatest warrior, the champion of Greece, the man who was half god.