Of all the characters in Greek mythology, Achilles has always fascinated me the most. Regardless of whether he’s portrayed as a hero or a villain, he is always shown as a force to be reckoned with, awe-inspiring and larger than life. I’ve yet to meet an Achilles story I don’t like, but Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles is easily my favorite. That’s right – this book is even better than the movie Troy. Those of you who’ve seen the movie, starring a blond, glorious Brad Pitt in Grecian armor, understand just how high an accolade that is.
Miller’s novel is narrated by Patroclus, the young man Achilles loves best of anyone in the world. Patroclus’ role in the tale of Achilles varies from storyteller to storyteller; in some versions of the myth he’s cast as a cousin or a trusted friend, while in others he isn’t present at all. In Miller’s tale, Patroclus is Achilles’ lover, which is the role in which I like him best. Patroclus bears witness to Achilles’ life, growing up as his steadfast companion and remaining at his side during Achilles’ rise to greatness as a hero of the Trojan War.
Through Patroclus’s eyes, you get to see a different side of Achilles. He’s still a warrior, an almost bloodthirsty man-among-men, but at the same time there’s a boyishness to him, an innocence. This is what draws Patroclus to him, but at the same time it makes Patroclus incredibly afraid for Achilles. No matter how talented a fighter he is, he’s guileless, a dangerous quality when surrounded by men like Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus.
I fell for Achilles and Patroclus as they fell for each other. They’re just so right together that witnessing their relationship feels like a privilege, like you’re a part of the specialness of their love, with all the joy and heartbreak this entails.The love that they share is so pure and tender and true that reading about it is almost like looking directly into the sun – it’s so bright that it hurts, as painful as it is beautiful.
The blissful agony of The Song of Achilles is that it’s the epitome of dramatic irony. The story of the Trojan War is well known, so you go into the story fully aware of the fate that awaits Patroclus and his beloved. They have no idea what’s in store, but you do, and it’s a dark cloud over the happy couple. They’re so blissful, so hopeful, that it breaks your heart to know how it’s all going to end. It makes for a very intense and emotional reading experience.
The best example of this is when Achilles’ allies try to convince Achilles to kill Hector, the opposing force’s champion. Achilles brushes this off with a smile, saying lightly, “What has Hector ever done to me?” This line was enough to give me goosebumps – and bring tears to my eyes – because I knew what would eventually come to pass.
Besides the gut-wrenching irony, another thing that’s really neat about The Song of Achilles is that it draws on aspects of the Achilles legend that I hadn’t heard before. Based on some research I did after finishing the book, it seems Miller drew on older versions of the myth for the source of her material as opposed to the relatively modern versions. There are a lot of events and characters in the book that I hadn’t heard of before, and certain elements are notably absent. For instance, Miller makes no mention of Achilles’ heel being a point of weakness, which I’d thought was pivotal to the story. According to the Internet, however, Achilles was not invulnerable in any of the older legends.
I loved everything about The Song of Achilles and would definitely recommend it to anyone who appreciates stories of ancient Greece, especially the Trojan War. This stunning love story, tragic at times yet ultimately hopeful, is one that will remain in my heart for life.