The story of Achilles has been passed down through the ages and adapted countless times, most recently in Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls, but also in less successful interpretations of the tale (Brad Pitt in Troy, I’m looking at you). The Song of Achilles (2011) by Madeline Miller offers an entirely new perspective altogether. It is something of an origins story, but most unusually is that it is told through the eyes of Achilles’ lover, Patroclus.
We first meet Patroclus as a young boy. His mother, he tells us, is simple and he lives under the constant disapproving gaze of his father. When he accidentally murders a boy, he is sent in exile to Peleus’ kingdom as a steward. There he meets a young prince (Achilles, of course) with golden hair who is both athletic and musical, and constantly flocked by the attention of the other boys living at the palace. Patroclus is resentful towards him, thinking him both arrogant and vain, and yet he is strangely fascinated by him.
It doesn’t take long for the pair to become friends (though only after a particularly sensual episode involving juggling and figs). The bond between the two boys grows and Patroclus finds himself becoming very confused about his feelings towards Achilles. They are sent off to train with Chiron, a centaur who lives in the mountains, who teaches them about foraging, woodwork and medicine. Secluded as they are, it is not long before Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship begins to blossom.
There could be no tale of Achilles without war, and eventually the boys are summoned to fight for the Greeks. Here we meet some of the big names of legend: Odysseus, Ajax and Agamemnon, but Miller keeps her focus firmly upon the love story between the young men. Patroclus suffers not only Achilles’ hunger for glory, but also constant appearances from his terrifying mother, Thetis, a formidable water goddess who never approved of Patroclus.
The story is perfectly paced. Miller still manages to create a good amount of tension, which is perhaps surprising for a story that most readers will be familiar with. The initial tension lies in the blossoming romance between Patroclus and Achilles, a stereotypical (but very effective) case of will-they-won’t-they. Patroclus then discovers a prophecy concerning his lover: Achilles will die, he is told, but only after Hector dies. Thus the great Trojan War becomes an exercise in not killing Hector, so that Achilles can borrow time for as long as possible.
If The Song of Achilles has a weakness, it lies in the fact that its narrator does, of course, die, and the final few chapters must deal with what happens after his death. It does feel a little clumsy, and Miller ties up the story in a way that feels far too tailored to please a modern audience; one can’t help thinking that things wouldn’t have been resolved so tidily in ancient times.
Nevertheless, what she does offer is a timeless tale of romance and a fresh take on the story of Achilles that has not been seen before. In a time where marginalised voices are being urged to be heard, it feels very appropriate that we are hearing the love story of two young men, and The Song of Achilles will certainly provide a moving and well-written read.