Booking It: Song of Achilles
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Achilles. One of the most famous heroes in all mythology. He’s a hero of Homer’s Iliad, and he’s one of the most instantly recognizable names from Greek mythology. His fabled “Achilles heel” remains a colloquial expression for a weak spot to this day. His strength and invulnerability are the stuff of legend. Patroclus, on the other hand, you may not have heard of.
It is Patroclus, however, who narrates Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, and it is through his eyes that we get an up-close and personal look at that famous Greek hero. After being exiled from his homeland for murder, albeit an accidental one, Patroclus is taken in by Peleus, Achilles’ father, as a ward. Over the years, he and Achilles grow close, first as friends, and then as lovers. Ultimately, of course, Paris carries off Helen, and they are both obligated to go to Troy together. However, the famous Trojan War and Achilles’ unsurpassed skill in battle, while present, are not the heart of this novel, nor do they drive the narrative. Song of Achilles is, first and foremost, a love story.
Though it arguably takes a significant departure from his characterization in classical source material, Miller’s novel strives to envision the man behind the legend. Our narrator is a less-than-mediocre soldier, and he has no interest in dwelling on Achilles’ military feats. He presents those that are necessary to the plot, and admires them insofar as they please Achilles himself and bring admiration, adoration or jealousy from those around him, but Patroclus keeps his focus firmly on their time together. We get vignettes of nights spent sleeping side by side and telling bad jokes, of days spent enjoying the sun or wandering through the forest.
There is no single major antagonist to the novel. The Trojans, though arguably the obvious enemy, hardly appear at all, Agamemnon is an antagonist but also their ally, and Thetis, Achilles’ mother, both comes between Achilles and Patroclus and does her utmost to protect her son. All of the characters have questionable motives that guide their actions, and none of them can be construed as evil or even wholly opposed to our main characters. In this sense, there is a grounding reality to the story: there is no black and white, no clear right and wrong path to follow.
On the other hand, there are some strongly mythological elements to this story. The most obvious is its fantastical edge: gods are not only an accepted part of this universe, but they can and do appear and intervene. Miller also includes bizarre events that are acceptable in myths but seem out of touch with reality, such as a warrior being able to convincingly disguise himself as a young woman.
All of this together – a myth that is also a slice-of-life story, the legend of a famous warrior told by a man who would happily avoid all fighting if he could – creates an oddball mix of a novel. It is touching, sometimes beautifully narrated, and if you’ve grown attached to the characters by the end it will be heartbreaking. The key word, though, is “if.”
There’s a curious sense throughout the novel that not very much seems to happen, or at the least, that any major events seem to happen very slowly and spaced far apart from one another. Miller’s indulgence is giving Patroclus time to describe his admiration and love of Achilles over and over. Sometimes he spends so much time on it that it grows unsettling, and seems more like hero worship on Patroclus’s part than a reciprocated relationship. The amount of time he spends extolling his friend could almost certainly have been cut down without losing the relationship they build. They could even be replaced with scenes that show more interaction between the two. There is a great deal more action as the book draws to its climax and conclusion, but up until that point there are long stretches of almost eerie calm. The problem is that it makes it difficult to empathize with the characters. Although later in the book Patroclus makes a name for himself as a medic and takes a stronger moral stance against both Agamemnon and Achilles, up until then he spends much of his time following Achilles around like a lovesick puppy while we are subjected to his continuous songs of praise. There is not a great deal in those early chapters that make me care about or root for either one of them.
Whether you love the masterful prose and slowly building relationship, or detest the swollen and repetitive nature of Patroclus’s praise, Miller’s novel is indisputably original. She weaves together myth and life, and the end result may be flawed yet it remains powerful. Find it at the library at go/bookingit.