Set in Greece during the Age of Heroes, the story is told from the point of view of Patroclus – an awkward young prince who was exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect song Achilles. Fate brings them together and Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend. They grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine and their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the very obvious displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, who does everything in her power to bring them apart. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles and Patroclus journey to Troy and the years that follow change their lives in more ways than they could have possibly imagined.
Out of all of the lovers in Greek Mythology, the last figure I would expect to be reworked as a romantic hero is Achilles. Known for his extraordinary strength, courage and loyalty, Achilles was one of the greatest warriors in Greek Mythology and was named Aristos Achaion (Best of the Greeks) during the Trojan War. But Madeline Miller brought out the lover beneath the bloodshed and fury, turning him into a character that we can’t help loving.
In my opinion, her writing is more poetic than translations of Homer’s Illiad at times. ‘Rumours come thick as biting flies… Achilles fingers the gossip, turning it this way and that.’ Miller’s way of writing invoked various emotions ranging from a heart-warming happiness to a crushing despondency. The novel practically bled emotion from every page, and since I already knew the traditional outcome of Achilles’ story and his role in the Trojan War, I knew that this was going to hurt. Certain lines were extremely powerful, and I would find myself thinking back to them later on in the day. “And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”
Irony was used brutally in this story. Both Achilles and Patroclus know that Achilles will never return from Troy and try to delay his fate, for he was prophesised to die there. But Patroclus is too obscure and ‘unimportant’ a figure to be properly mentioned in prophecies, and he constantly dreads life after Achilles’ death. “I rose and rubbed my limbs, slapped them awake, trying to ward off a rising hysteria. This is what it will be, every day, without him. I felt a wild-eyed tightness in my chest, like a scream. Every day, without him.”
It is obvious how much Patroclus and Achilles love each other and how much they would be affected by the others’ death and when Miller wrote about how not a single Greek hero was happy it got me thinking back to all of the Greek Myths I had read. 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. “They never let you be famous and happy.”
Miller spent 10 years writing this book and it is clear just how much painstaking research she has put into it from the subtle nods to other Greek myths and her knowledge of how the events would have taken place at the time. I love how Madeline Miller made a connection to the Fates when she wrote, ‘“You have made a fair run of blocking fate’s path. But you cannot do it forever. The gods will not let you.” He pauses, to let us hear each word of what he says. “The thread will run smooth, whether you choose it or not. I tell you as a friend, it is better to seek it on your own terms, to make it go at your pace, than theirs.”’
Madeline Miller also uses Ancient Greek words throughout the book ingeniously; ‘“Over your pride.” The word I use is hubris. Our word for arrogance that scrapes the stars, for violence and towering rage as ugly as the gods.’ Madeline Miller also incorporated the famous Trolley Problem into the book by having Chiron pose it as a question to Patroclus and Achilles with an Ancient Greek twist to it. Patroclus recalls it when he is put in a similar position during the Trojan War and says, ‘We had been silent. We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us. At twenty-eight, they still feel too hard… I know, now, how I could answer Chiron. I would say: there is not answer. Whichever you choose, you are wrong.’
The Song of Achilles was impossible to put down once I started reading. Read this book, you’ll thank me later!