The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
Harper Collins Publishers
The story Madeline Miller writes in The Song of Achilles is neither the first Homeric revamp nor the last. But nevertheless she presents a story so touching and real that I could not resist making my first post at A&P about it.
Miller did not discover some great new secret trove which allowed her to shed substantial light on the original epic, and I didn’t come this this book expecting her to reveal many new insights. Her biography says she received a master’s degree in Latin and ancient Greek from Brown, and I found that sufficient for her purposes: a re-imagining of Patroclus’s relationship with Achilles.
Miller accomplishes her goal beautifully. Under her thumb, these characters become human when for millennia they have only been myth. In simple and elegant prose she describes the touching friendship, romance, and death of Achilles and Patroclus. While no enlightened reader would expect their story to end anywhere else than it did in The Iliad, Miller’s description of their final odyssey to Hades after Achilles’s death at the hands of Paris is so heart-wrenching that I found myself in tears.
Her story takes us from Patroclus’s birth and disappointing childhood as a son of a Greek king, to his adolescence with Achilles, through the ten years they lived outside the walls of Troy. Because I believe this story is well-known, I will not rehash the plot details here. But I will say that Miller brings new energy to an old and beloved story. Achilles was never a favorite character of mine, seeming too angry (the Iliad is the story of his anger after all) and rash. Chiefly, he seemed immature (which seems fitting given that Miller describes him as never living to see 28. The first initiate to the 27 Club!). Miller does not change this, but escorts us through a more personal journey than what the Iliad offers, explaining his actions in a way that humanizes him. We see his life with his father and the Greeks, who have told him since he was born that he would be not only a hero, but the best one. During his time with Chiron, we learn that he has never experienced failure. We endure his co-dependent relationship with his mother, who dresses him as a girl in order to thwart his fate. But most of all, because of Patroclus, we see the man which the myth has erased, a man who was forced to kill.
When I sat down to write this review, I thought that it would be about Patroclus. He is the narrator and he is who I fell in love with when I read this book. And I think that if I were writing this review for anyone else other than A&P, I would focus on him and his relationship with Achilles. Miller really means to speak about their love, which high school literature teachers like to skip over, and that story is what makes the novel worth reading. Their relationship feels real and Miller offers a romance which rivals their more famous star-crossed compatriots: Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Ross and Rachel. Theirs is a love so sweet and pure, you almost sob (or at least I did) when you read of their courtship:
“We were like gods at the dawning of the world , and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other” (page 103).
But that’s where this never-ending praise has to come to a screeching halt. While much, if not the majority, of her story seems seated in original Greek myths and history, I was confused with one of the most basic aspects: their ages. In Miller’s story, Patroclus is a few months younger than Achilles, and this is not what my Greek teacher told me. These Greek, pedagogical, lover/beloved relationships have been studied by individuals much more apt than I, but I was taught (as of three months ago) that Achilles was the younger member of this partnership. I remember this vividly because it seemed so wrong when we heard it. My Greek class was reading Phaedrus’s speech in Plato’s Symposium and were shocked to discover that Achilles was not the lover but the still-beardless beloved. And while none of us had explicitly studied their relationship previously, I think I can state that all of us were surprised by this revelation. For some reason Patroclus seemed younger. But, we were assured, this was NOT the case.
Perhaps Miller also went off the vague notion she received from her reading of the Iliad, or perhaps my class was misinformed. Either way, this jarred me. While Patroclus does seem more mature than his lover in Miller’s book, he certainly was neither the lesser nor greater partner, and their relationship did not seem to be pedagogical in any way.
Other issues also seemed inconsistent (though I am no great Greek scholar). In The Song of Achilles, Odysseus remarks how odd Achilles and Patrolcus’s relationship is, for while younger boys often lie together while younger, they usually outgrow it by the time they reach their late teens. I understand that it is difficult to determine what the Greeks considered profane in male/male relationships, and that scholars have often argued both ways. However, I was under the impression that it was fairly common practice among the upper crust, and not as surprising or as troubling as Miller presented it.
Finally, her book ends rather happily (much to my delight because I was completely sucked into her narrative and heartbroken in their deaths, even though I knew they were coming), as the lovers are reunited in the underworld as shadows. But this directly contradicts what we learn from the Odyssey, in which Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld, Achilles tells him that “[he] would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, than be king over all the perished dead” (Book XI). While Miller offers a complex explanation detailing the spirit’s journey from death to the underworld, she directly contradicts what we later learn. Perhaps there is a simple explanation of this: her editors knew the public needed a happy ending, like I did.
Despite these inconsistencies, this book is more than worth reading. It offers a compelling picture of life in war and across Greece, and the characters are complex and full, lovely and personal.