What would you do if the love of your life was taking on something that you knew would kill them?
Homer’s Iliad is a mainstay of western culture, one of the first epics to be written down in that tradition. So why read a novel that retells part of that story when everyone knows how it ends?
Well, for one thing, as poetic and action filled as Homer’s great epic is, it is far removed from modern western thought and our desire for character development. The heroes are writ large as befits a story soaked in myth and other characters don’t get much time in the light at all. What we get are wooden symbols, splendid puppets, rather than individuals. There is space for a rich tapestry of personal stories not fleshed out in the original and Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles has fixed on a gripping one– the enigmatic relationship between the tragic Greek hero Achilles and his dearest friend Patroclus.
You probably know that Achilles dies near the end of the Trojan War. It’s quite possible that you also remember the death of Patroclus, which returns the furious Achilles to fighting after a terrible quarrel with Agamemnon. What you aren’t familiar with are all the details and personal struggle that led up to their deaths and the aesthetic value, as opposed to the violence, of their lives. You’ve probably never thought of Achilles and Patroclus as two teenage boys faced with death, armed with honor, cunning, talent and their passionate love for one another.
The novel is narrated by Patroclus, a very minor character in the Iliad, and is preoccupied with fate and the avoidance of fate, a theme that runs through Greek literature and theater. Miller is a scholar in addition to being a gifted writer (who also attended Yale drama school) and has done her homework in building characters true to the original and imbuing them with startling humanity. Her effort would surely have delighted the ear of ancient Greece while teasing out things into which they would not have delved.
Patroclus is the son of a minor Grecian King, and has been exiled to the court of Peleus, Achilles’ father, for accidentally killing another boy. He is spellbound by the ravishingly beautiful, intelligent and multi-talented Achilles, who is beloved and sought by everyone. Patroclus is gangly and awkward beside Aristos Achaion, best of the Greeks. But who wouldn’t be?
Despite the tendency of Patroclus toward self deprecation, which is repeatedly apparent during the novel, Achilles reciprocates his feelings. An intense relationship buds between these two young men that becomes a sexual one. It wasn’t unusual for Greek men of this era to have homosexual relationships, especially soldiers who spent so much time together. It was also fairly common for young men to “grow out” of these relationships, marry and raise children. Over the course of the novel, we see this tension move through the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, but they remain devoted to one another. Thankfully they have more time than they expect. Achilles does have a child, the monstrous Pyrrhus who appears at the end of our story, but has precious little interest in Deidameia, whom he marries in secret to please his mother and produce an heir.
Perhaps the most vivid personage in the novel is Thetis, Achilles’ terrifying and powerful mother. Her shining white skin and raspy voice are inhuman for she is a goddess. She bears no love for Patroclus, whom she considers an unfit companion for her superhuman son. It is she, however, who reveals to the two boys the dire prophecy. If Achilles goes to Troy to fight he will be a great hero. He will also die there after killing the Trojan prince Hector. If he does not go to Troy he will live a long, undistinguished life. Like most mothers, Thetis tries to protect her child, but she cannot keep him from his destiny. Even Patroclus, whom Achilles loves more than anyone, cannot do that. The decision is finally made to go to Troy together. Achilles will stay away from Hector, who, after all, has done nothing to him personally. Not yet.
Watching the wheels of fate slowly roll over this couple is heartbreaking. We are mute bystanders with foreknowledge, unable to cry out a warning. It is in the moment that Patroclus, who has always been more of a healer than a warrior, goes to battle wearing Achilles’ armor, sacrificing himself to uphold his lover’s honor, that we see with shocking clarity how destiny will play out. We knew the moment would come, but nothing prepares us for how tragic it is. It is in protecting and thereby assuming equality with Achilles that Patroclus, steered by forces beyond his control, finally seals their fate. He becomes for a short time the best of the Greeks.
If Achilles brings out the noble and godly in Patroclus, it must be said that Patroclus brings out the merciful and human in Achilles. One cannot make choices for another, but the influence friends and lovers have over each other can change worlds. The choices Achilles and Patroclus make have repercussions for Trojans, Greeks and gods alike. They are much more than pawns pushed across a chessboard.
We all fear being separated from our loved ones by death. Sometimes this brings out our noble qualities and sometimes it makes us bitter and hateful, but it cannot cheapen the value or beauty of the lives we have been given together. There is something lasting there, even if we can’t quite name what it is, something that rings across the ages.
I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. Catch, he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. If you have to go, I will go with you. My fears forgotten in the golden harbor of his arms.
The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both.
-Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles