Madeline Miller’s novel Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize last year. Her thrilling debut concerns the love of Patroclus and Achilles and illustrates how being a good man is a tale as old as time.
The story of Achilles is not new, and anyone who is familiar with it knows how it is going to end. That being said, I was surprised at how emotional I was by the end of this novel.
‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller, takes the story of Achilles and the Trojan War and tells it through the eyes of Patroclus, the companion of Achilles. Patroclus is an exiled prince who comes to live in the house of Peleus, Achilles’ father. Achilles and Patroclus become close friends, and as they grow, they come to love each other. All the while grappling with the prophecy that Achilles will become the greatest warrior of the Greek world, but will die young.
This novel works on several levels; there is the mythology, of course. You can’t tell the tale of Achilles (whose mother is Thetis, a sea goddess) and the Trojan War without involving the gods themselves. Miller does this well. The gods are not roaming the countryside, and they don’t just show up to fix something in a Deus Ex Machina manner. Their presence is felt rather than seen. Aside from Apollo (who only shows up twice, and never speaks), Thetis is the only deity to appear throughout the book, and even then her role is a delicate balance between mother and goddess. Miller has done much research on the history and mythology of Hellenic culture. Her strength lies in letting this research inform the narrative, rather than driving it. Greek words are used sparsely and with purpose, letting the reader come into the world of ancient Greece gently. The Greeks themselves are less noble that the myths we read in school would lead us to believe. A ragtag coalition barely held together not by Agamemnon (who is crude, vile and jealous) but by the love and loyalty the soldiers feel for Achilles. Most of the heroes of ‘The Iliad’ are portrayed here as brutish, or cunning, or less than honorable. They become people, with faults and foibles. None really have what I would consider many redeeming qualities. Achilles would not have fought for their cause had it not been for prophecy. Miller also did a great job in marrying the improbable with the probable. It’s tough to believe that a thousand ships set sail for Troy just to bring back one woman, but it is possible that it was an excuse given and the real reason was a little more complex. Miller never contradicts the mythology, just expands it and grounds it.
Then of course there is the gay love story of Patroclus and Achilles. It’s all there: the shame a young boy feels for having thoughts about another boy, the blush of first love, the beauty of youth and the feeling of invulnerability, the disappointment of a parent. In this, Thetis, plays the role of every parent who cannot bear to disown their own child and instead heap rejection and spitefulness on the partner. At various points in the novel, Thetis calls Patroclus “unworthy,” “a distraction,” “a shame.”
The romance and sex life of Achilles and Patroclus is not glossed over, nor is it exploited. They hold hands, they kiss, they are comfortable with themselves and their bodies. They have no gay friends, there is no “community” to be a part of. This is just two men who love each other and are trying to find the best way to make their love work under extraordinary circumstances. It is beautiful to read.
Mostly, however, this novel works as a love story, regardless of gender or sexuality. Achilles is destined to greater things, but will not live to see old age. Patroclus, as someone who loves Achilles, wants nothing more than to see him achieve all he is meant to, but he also wants him safe. He constantly wrestles with these conflicting emotions. It would be the same if Patroclus had been Achilles’ wife. Love of this caliber knows no boundaries.
Because we all know how this story ends, I was anxious to see how Miller would finish the tale. What she came up with to sew the ending up was beautiful and made me tear up more than once. She also judiciously uses some powerful foreshadowing which caught me off guard a couple of times. It was easy to get into the flow of the story, forget about the ending, and get sideswiped by a reminder that this was not going to end well. It served the characters, and the reader well.
Today is December 30th. I don’t know if I will start another book before the end of the year. I need more time to savor this story. I’m not ready to abandon Achilles and Patroclus so soon. It is not often you can a story so well known and make it pull at the soul like this. Madeline Miller proves that the ancient stories endure because they can still speak to us, thousand of years later. One only has to listen.
Read our exclusive Q&A with author Madeline Miller here!