The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a retelling of the Illiad from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest companion and lover. It starts off when Patroclus is five and first sees Achilles at an athletics competition, jumps forward to when he is nine and gets himself exiled over an accidental death and rolls through the time of their budding relationship and into the depths of the Trojan War. Anyone who has read the Illiad or knows anything about the mythology in general knows that (SPOILER ALERT) Achilles and Patroclus both die in the war.
The part of the book I love best is when Achilles and Patroclus are still young-ish and they are bromancing so incredibly hard, right before it tips over into romance and the flirting is just the cutest thing in existence. Patroclus is just helpless with adoration for Achilles and it’s basically impossible to not love him. What I like best about this section of the book is that they’ve had several years to build their relationship, but they’re not yet off to war, they’re still in an innocent state where they’re learning from Chiron, enjoying each others company, etc. before the rest of the world starts to beat down their door.
Briseis is in the story and not, as she is in many versions, a lover of Achilles. In fact, she falls for Patroclus instead. When the “war prizes” start to come into the camp, Patroclus urges Achilles to claim as many of the women for himself to save them from rape at the hands of the others in the camp. The first such one saved is Briseis who basically becomes a best friend to Patroclus while Achilles is off slaying the Trojans.
The core of this book is the bond between Achilles and Patroclus, the push and pull of the world around them and the evolution of their feelings as circumstances shift. It’s not until Achilles is willing to sacrifice Briseis in the name of his honor that Patroclus has his first unforgiving thoughts about his love. Prior to this point there’s only been love and support, without judgement, but Patroclus is strong enough to recognize that even Achilles is not perfect and he’s willing to step in as needed.
One thing I really like about Miller’s story is the tangibility of the Gods. They are not appearing through others, not shows of power without explanation, but bodily entities that appear and intervene. Achilles is the song of the sea-nymph Thetis as a result of the rape on her by Peleus, arranged by Zeus and Poseidon. Thetis makes several appearances in the book and is not at all like I’ve ever imagined the Gods to be. I imagine her in my head to look a bit like the Other Mother from Coraline. Most of her attention is on Achilles, in trying to ensure that he will be remembered and averting his death. She hates Patroclus, viewing him as unworthy of her son and would be far happier if he disappeared. At the end of the book when Patroclus is a shade, he and Thetis finally settle their differences, joined together by their love and grief over the loss of Achilles. Thetis is the one who finally gives Patroclus peace when no one else would, knowing at last that in all her quests to help her son, the peace of the one he loved best would be the greatest thing she could do for him.
Overall the book is incredibly well done. I knew that the main characters were going to die and I feel like I started to emotionally distance myself when I could tell it was getting close. Miller makes an excellent point in the story that Achilles is remembered most for the actions he took in his darkest moments of grief. His slaying of Hector and dragging his body, the supplication of King Priam, etc. were all right after Achilles lost Patroclus and was desperately wanting someone to dispatch him as well so they could be together. The very end is perfect and I love it. I’ll definitely be re-reading it at some point.
The only thing that could have made this book better would be if there was some more content during the war itself. The Trojan War is a decade long and there’s very little content about it except for the last year. I’d have loved to see more of the evolution between Patroclus and Achilles as they and circumstance change. So that’s my take on the Song of Achilles, definitely worth checking out 🙂
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