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The Song of Achilles (Ecco) is a revisiting of the Trojan War as told in The Iliad, with a love story at its center. It folds sensual details into every chapter, page, and paragraph so densely, the words themselves occasionally threaten to blossom on the page. This is a good thing, deliciously, richly so.
Patroclus is the son of King Menoitus and a mother deemed “simple” and disregarded thereafter. An awkward boy, he tries to remain invisible until, while defending himself against a bullying child, he accidentally kills the boy. Exiled to Pthia, Patroclus resumes his invisibility among a new group of boys. But Achilles sees him, tossing him a fig in greeting, and they begin a tentative friendship. Achilles’ father accepts this as of a piece with his son’s iconoclasm; having taken to heart the prophecy at birth that he would grow to be the best fighter of his generation, he doesn’t need the companionship of the more popular boys who try to curry favor. But Thetis, his sea goddess mother, is against the relationship, and not shy about scaring Patroclus half to death. Nevertheless, their friendship warms to deep affection, then love. Their tentative behavior, and the legitimate fear of being spied on by an omniscient parent, give way on Achilles’ sixteenth birthday (Patroclus gifts him with fresh figs). “I knew Achilles’ golden skin and the curve of his neck, the crooks of his elbows. I knew how pleasure looked on him. Our bodies cupped each other like hands.”
This pleasure can’t last, of course; the Trojan War ultimately divides the two, and they are reunited only in death, with assistance from surprising quarters. Achilles’ anger and pride, and the notion that he’s simply fulfilling his destiny, allow him to fight without thought for the consequences; Patroclus has been an afterthought to most of the people in his life, and his more generous world view thinks of nothing but consequences. Their fight is political and personal, and the fallout devastating.
The Song of Achilles is something entirely new, yet faithful to The Iliad. Richmond Lattimore’s translation finds Achilles greeting Patroclus as “you who delight my heart.” The two share quarters, and when Achilles plays the lyre Patroclus reclines against him. There’s also a moment when Achilles asks Patroclus why he’s crying like a little girl separated from her mother in a manner that’s both chiding and tender. For lack of a better term, it reads as spousal. So, too, in Song. When Achilles plays the lyre, the music “bright as lemons,” Patroclus rests a hand on his foot. They guard their privacy, but operate as a partnership nevertheless.
Author Madeline Miller studied Greek and Latin, and combed out every reference to Patroclus to find the heart of this novel, which is her first. It’s a gorgeous, assured debut, and one that succeeds on multiple levels. The battle scenes and interplay between gods and mortals are true to the world of swords-and-sandals epic fiction, gory and thrilling. Yet within that world is nestled this tender story of love, coming of age, and destiny, where a conversation is interrupted by the soft pat of an olive falling from a tree. It’s that loving attention to the world around them that makes the relationship so believable and poignant. When the pair leave to join the war, Patroclus hugs Achilles: “I had embraced him too, those thin, wiry limbs. I thought, This is what Achilles will feel like when he is old. And then I remembered: he will never be old.” Despite the ache, The Song of Achilles lifts and opens the heart. It’s a rich, beautiful tale.
The Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller
Hardcover, 9780062060617, 384pp.