The Song of Achilles is Madeline Miller’s much-lauded retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus. I enjoyed Miller’s Circe last year, as well as Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which looks at the Trojan War from the perspective of Briseis. So I thought there was a good chance I’d enjoy this, even if I wasn’t quite as blown away as everyone else seemed to be. I really didn’t expect to be so entirely absorbed in and moved by the story.
Miller’s narrator is Patroclus, the son of a king but a disappointment from the start. And when a fit of temper leads him to murder and exile, he ends up in Phthia. There, he meets Achilles and is immediately fascinated. The two gradually fall in love, against the wishes of Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis. However, they find sanctuary with Chiron, the centaur who trains Achilles in the ways of war and Patroclus in the art of healing.
Eventually, however, the Trojan war calls on them. Achilles is the best of all Greek warriors, and Patroclus pledged an oath when he was just a boy. The years on the battlefield enable them both to use their gifts, but they wreak emotional and psychological havoc. That’s particularly true when it comes to their relationship with Agamemnon, the violent leader of the Greeks, always jealous of Achilles and fearful of losing his status.
The love story here is tenderly rendered, but also allowed to be complicated. The fact that they love each other is a simple fact, not questioned at all. And the fact that they are both men is treated as possibly complicated, but not a major obstacle. The real obstacle in their relationship is the fact of war itself, and their differing ways of dealing with war. This is one of the things I loved about the book. They have real, serious differences, but they listen to each other and try to understand. Yet, ultimately, the differences set off a chain of events that lead to their doom.
Having read The Silence of the Girls last year, I was especially interested that the conflict stems in part from their differing attitudes toward Briseis. Achilles claims Briseis as a prize only because Patroclus sees her and fears what will happen to her if she goes to any of the other men, especially Agamemnon. And although Achilles treats her well, it is Patroclus who seems most aware of her personhood. In fact, he is far more aware than Achilles of everyone’s personhood. Achilles remains wrapped up in the machinations of war, whether that war is with the Trojans or with Agamemnon. This is a major difference in their characters.
The Trojan War, all on its own, provides sufficient conflict for any narrative, but I’m glad that Miller also looked for the conflict within the main characters, both as individuals and as a couple. It made the pain of the ending far more potent, knowing that there were so many dimensions to their feelings for each other, and that their love was steadfast throughout. It made them feel authentic and that was why I had such an emotional response to the story.