Book review: “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

I had to wait about four weeks to get my copy of The Song of Achilles from my local library. The book regularly makes the rounds on gay Mormon Twitter, and I finally got around to reading it.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus, the lover of the hero Achilles (or “speculated” lover, according to Wikipedia). Historical fiction retellings from alternate perspectives are my jam, and it was so good to get some LGBTQ representation here (can I get a David and Jonathan retelling next?). I’m no expert in Greek mythology (my 10-year-old self would disagree after scouring the internet for anything Greek mythology-related), but I feel Madeline Miller has done a great job capturing the spirit of the work for a modern audience. While I can’t speak for experts, I can speak for junior high students who brute forced their way through The Iliad because it’s a classic and felt obligated to read it. I read the Iliad and came away unmoved, and didn’t internalize a bit of it. It felt like a dusty tome with names like Euryplyus and Idaeus that rolled of my brain like water off your waterproof iPhone case. The Song of Achilles brings life to each character. Patroclus is a young boy doomed to exile, but is caught in a love so deep for the young Achilles that redeems him. Achilles seems the image of perfection at first, but becomes so caught up in the ide of his legacy that he abandons those closest to him. Even characters that aren’t as central in this perspective– Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax– each have quirks, idiosyncrasies, that they become real to the audience. Bravo for making these characters come to life for a young audience.

I have to be up front. I am here for the glances. Miller beautifully captures the complete infatuation of an unspoken attraction between two youths. For several chapters, she keeps it unspoken out loud, but with words that are screaming off the page. I felt it deep down when Patroclus says:

I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty? It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet as they kicked up the sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough.

Oh, to be a kid with a crush again.

But the book quickly develops much less light-hearted themes, as anyone who knows any details of the 10-year long war for Troy knows. There are two inter-related themes come to overshadow the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

The first is the asymmetric relationship between the demigod and his companion. It is always present from the very beginning, but tensions get bigger and bigger the longer the story goes on. While Achilles goes out and fights, Patroclus stays behind. In the end, he uses it for good. He practices medicine, he rescues slaves and builds a family. It paints Patroclus as intrinsically good, while Achilles as having lost his innocence in a way, having to be dragged into war.

But Patroclus’s helplessness always leaves everything feeling wrong: I am no longer to guide the course, merely to be carried, into darkness and beyond, with only Achilles’ hands at the helm. In more than one moment, Patroclus takes a passive role. What can you do when you are side by side with a demigod?

The second and related theme is the role of fate. In the Greek prophetic tradition, fate is inexorable. A prophecy spoken cannot be avoided. And Achilles is doomed to die before the war’s end. All that is left to do is observe how fate unravels itself. Sure, you can try to delay. That becomes a major plot point. But usually your attempts to delay is brings the prophecy to pass. The tragedy of a fate you can’t fight against is a narrative I cannot accept. It has been invoked and caused harm by so many powers that be, and I will not let my own life become a Greek tragedy.

There was one aside I wanted to make in this review. The tale of Achilles, leaves a trail of women who are left hurt, abused and even killed.

Deidameia, daughter of King Lycomedes, is married to Achilles in secret while his mother attempts to hide him from the Greeks. Deidameia becomes pregnant and bears him a son, even after he spurns her in favor of Patroclus. While Achilles apparently did this under duress of his mother, Deidameia is left behind knowing that her husband doesn’t love her.

Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, is promised to Achilles in marriage. Again, Achilles doesn’t want to marry the girl, but it is an honor bestowed that he cannot refuse. When Iphrigrenia is brought, she is slaughtered by her own father to appease the anger of the gods. With how little regard the life of this girl is treated.

Finally, Briseis, a Trojan girl taken prisoner in war, is nearly taken as a prize by King Agamemnon. But Achilles claims her at the urging of Patroclus, in an attempt to save at least one life. Patroclus saves her from the fate of a sex slave, and becomes her friend. He saves others, and they almost make a family of sorts. But she becomes a pawn in a power play between Achilles and Agamemnon, and is eventually slaughtered by Phyrrus, the son of Achilles.

There are so many injustices done to women throughout history and literature. These specific stories bring me pain, because of how they are wrapped up with the love of Achilles and Patroclus. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to mixed-orientation marriages, and how so much pain is caused to the spouses involved. This scene between Briseis and Patroclus stung. Briseis has developed feelings for Patroclus, and she kisses him:

She knew, then. She felt it in the way I took her hand, the way my gaze rested on her. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

I shook my head, but could not think of what more to say.

Her shoulders crept up, like folded wings. “I know that you love him,” she said, hesitating a little before each word. “I know. But I thought that– some men have wives and lovers both.”

Her face looked very small, and so sad that I could not be silent.

“Briseis,” I said. “If I ever wished to take a wife, it would be you.”

“But you do not wish to take a wife.”

“No,” I said, as gently as I could.

I wept for Briseis.

I was glad to read The Song of Achilles. But in a lot of ways, it’s a Twilight kind of romance: perhaps you can read to enjoy, but do not emulate. It’s more than a little messed up.

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