The Song of Achilles is the poignant, tragic love story of Achilles and Patroclus, and you need to read it this summer. Classics scholar Madeline Miller imagines the backstory of two characters made famous in Homer’s Iliad — Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior and Aristos Achaion (“best of the Greeks”), and Patroclus, his closest friend and, as some scholars speculate, his lover. The Iliad doesn’t provide much of Achilles’ personal history and virtually nothing of Patroclus’, but Miller’s vibrant imagination and her knowledge and devotion to the classics allows her to create a beautiful story of two young men coming together as friends and then lovers against a backdrop of war.
Patroclus serves as narrator, giving his background and how he came to meet Achilles. Patroclus was a prince of limited skill and ability (based on warrior skills, which were vitally important to Greeks). His father, king of one of the many Greek city states, found him to be a disappointment and when Patroclus accidentally killed another boy, he was exiled from the kingdom to keep peace with powerful noble families. Patroclus ends up bound over to Peleus, father of Achilles, known for his excellence in battle and fairness with his people. Peleus takes in many boys as foster children to train to serve as his soldiers. Initially aloof, Patroclus attracts the attention of Achilles — a truly “golden boy” whom all the others try to impress. Achilles’ mother Thetis is a sea nymph, and prophecy says her child is destined to become the greatest warrior the Greeks have ever known. Achilles possesses god-like skills even as a child, and while aware of his own amazing talents, he can be kind and down to earth, especially with Patroclus. Everyone is surprised (including Patroclus) when Achilles names this quiet and undistinguished boy his therapon, a “brother-in-arms sworn to a prince by blood oaths and love.” The therapon has great prestige as one of the prince’s closest advisers and a member of his honor guard.
Patroclus was initially jealous of Achilles but soon became enthralled by his beauty, his ability to sing and play the lyre, his physical prowess. Achilles treats Patroclus as an equal and with respect. The two boys’ love for each other grows with time and becomes a mature adult relationship that they must hide from their peers. The Greeks accepted homosexuality only between a man and a slave or boy, and it was expected that the man would still have a wife and have heirs. It was not acceptable for two men of similar class to have such a relationship. Thetis is especially repulsed by it (although she finds all mortals repulsive, including her own husband Peleus who raped her at the gods’ urging) and tries unsuccessfully to keep the two apart. Thetis’ focus is on making sure that Achilles fulfills his destiny and wins greatness and honor, and she will let nothing get in the way. Achilles, however, does not back down before his mother or popular convention. His love and devotion to Patroclus are strong and true.
The tragedy, as we know from the Iliad, is that fate has decreed that Achilles will die after achieving glory and renown for defeating the Trojan hero Hector. Achilles, Patroclus and Thetis all know of this prophecy, and the knowledge of impending death brings a special poignancy to Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship. Achilles desires fame and glory but he does not want to be parted from his love. It is Achilles’ hubris, however, his arrogance about his own reputation and worth, that ultimately leads to tragedy for the Greeks, Patroclus and himself.
Knowing how this will end does not diminish the power of the story, and Miller’s imagining of Patroclus’ activities during the Trojan War is brilliant. Despite the fact that he avoids battle, he becomes “best of the Myrmidons” (Achilles’ men) by saving lives as a healer and by saving women of the conquered tribes, in particular Briseis, who becomes his devoted friend. Patroclus also saves Achilles’ reputation at great personal risk at a critical point in the war.
It’s pretty risky to take a classic of world literature and try to build upon it, but Miller succeeds and creates a beautiful story of friendship and love that never dies.
The enhanced edition for iPad, Kindle Fire, etc. includes audio recordings of chapters; links to descriptions of the characters (plus gods, goddesses) with cartoon pictures of them and biographical information; information on ships and armor/weapons; and video clips of Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked) interviewing Miller on a variety of topics.