The Song of Achilles
NOTE: I’m assuming a basic level of familiarity with Greek mythology. I’m not rehashing the Trojan War. If the names and vocabulary are confusing, Google is your friend.
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
If all the Greek mythology retellings published in the last decade got together and made a band, The Song of Achilles would be my bias. I will fully admit that this is the book against which I judge all other retellings, for better or for worse. The Silence of the Girls (Pat Barker) held up somewhat and Ariadne (Jennifer Saint) not at all, and, given the great wealth of Greek retellings that seem to be out there, I’m looking forward to judging more. No, really, this’ll be fun.
The Song of Achilles begins with the story of Patroclus, scorned son of a hard-hearted king. His father, Menoitius, is cold and demanding; his mother suffers from a major intellectual disability that sometimes prevents her from recognizing her own son. Born small and uninterested in violence, Patroclus grows up in the shadow of his fiercer father, and – to a lesser extent – in the golden shadow cast by Achilles, prince of Phthia, who is held up by Menoitius as a prototype of what a son should be. Patroclus has no heroic deeds to his name, no godly lineage; the most notable event in his childhood is his father’s failed attempt to betroth him to Helen of Trojan fame, which begins with some snarky interference from Odysseus and ends with Patroclus signing a blood oath to uphold Helen’s marriage to Menelaus of Mycenae. He is finally exiled from his father’s kingdom at the age of ten when he accidentally kills the son of one of his father’s noblemen, and is sent to be fostered at the court of Peleus, father of Achilles. Despite a rocky start, Achilles chooses Patroclus as his personal companion against the wishes of his sea nymph mother, Thetis, and they grow up side by side. After a few years in Peleus’s palace, Patroclus follows Achilles to the mountains, where they study medicine and wilderness survival with the centaur Chiron. Safe from Thetis’s interference and sheltered from the rest of the world, they become lovers shortly after Achilles’s sixteenth birthday.
Adulthood can only be deferred for so long, however, and reality eventually comes knocking in the form of the Trojan War. Peleus asks Achilles to take his place as the leader of the Phthian soldiers (called Myrmidons), but Thetis kidnaps him before he can decide and spirits him away to the tiny island of Scyros, where she hides him in the court of King Lycomedes. Patroclus follows in time to learn that Thetis has secretly and forcibly wedded Achilles to Deidameia, Lycomedes’s daughter, and that Deidameia is now pregnant. Thetis orders Lycomedes to keep Achilles hidden on Scyros, but he is recruited for the war anyway when Odysseus and Diomedes of Crete expose his identity in front of the court. Though their interaction is fairly cordial, Odysseus gives Achilles an ultimatum: he will die in a blaze of glory if he goes to war, but he will lose his divinity if he does not. Faced with a choice between fame and obscurity, Achilles chooses fame. Bound by his earlier oath, Patroclus is recruited as well, and they set sail for Troy at the head of 2,500 Myrmidons. After a decade of inconclusive fighting, Patroclus is killed by Hector, Prince of Troy; Achilles avenges Patroclus, then dies himself. After his death, his place is taken by Neoptolemus (“Pyrrhus”), the brutal, godly son born to Deidameia and raised by Thetis. Pyrrhus’s arrival signals the beginning of the end: the horse is sent behind the walls of Troy, and the city falls. At the very end, when he is no more than a memory clinging to the monument built to honor Achilles, Patroclus reconciles with Thetis, who regularly visits the monument. She carves his name into the monument as a final act of kindness, and he joins Achilles in the afterlife.
It’s hard to think of a book I love more than this one. It is the perfect length, neither too long nor too short; the writing is lovely and heartwrenching, and about as close to perfect as it can get. Though I think it helps to have an entry-level understanding of Greek mythology, you don’t need it, because the book explains itself nicely. The only thing I would note is that Patroclus’s narration arbitrarily slides into present tense from time to time, sometimes in the middle of a scene. The present takes over completely after his death, which makes perfect sense, but I’m not sure why the narrative as a whole keeps jumping back and forth. It’s not badly done – the writing is uniformly beautiful throughout the book – it just doesn’t always have a clear rationale.
Writing aside, I also struggled with the Deidameia arc, which – though solidly rooted in the original mythology – was somewhat odd towards the end. I have nothing specific against Deidameia, whom I mostly pity, but I don’t see any reason why Patroclus had to sleep with her himself, unless Miller intended to make it good and clear that Patroclus will never be interested in women. (To be clear, Deidameia initiated their tryst.) The story, while beautifully deft in most respects, was almost painfully awkward in this one instance, and I wish that scene had been cut out. It wasn’t necessary and it didn’t add anything, besides possibly evening out the infidelity score between Patroclus and Achilles. Whether Patroclus slept with her or not was and remains irrelevant, because she would still have been exiled from Scyros to spend her pregnancy out of public view. We can’t even say that Pyrrhus was part Patroclus’s son, because that is very much not how biology works.
That being said, my tiny beefs with the narrative style and the Deidameia issue don’t actually matter that much, because Patroclus has a stranglehold on my heart. He is the heart and soul of the book, which is good, considering he’s the narrator. There was never any point where I wondered why we had to see the story from his perspective. He is sweet and funny, compassionate without being toxically positive and gentle-hearted without being weak. His kindness is the salvation of many Trojan women, as he regularly sends Achilles to claim as many abducted women as possible, to spare them from the abuse they would receive at the hands of other Greek men; and, though he is generally viewed as Achilles’s pet rabbit (his words, not mine), he is not helpless. He is one of the best male protagonists I’ve ever read, if not the very best. I wish more authors could manage this.
Equally wonderful is Achilles, who is too frequently remembered for the people he killed. I’m so glad we got to watch him grow up. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls portrayed him as a thuggish, overgrown child, but Miller’s Achilles is far more nuanced. In the beginning he is a sweet, inquisitive princeling, faultlessly honest and endearingly naive, with a streak of the stubborn defiance that later dooms him. He is aware of and confident in his abilities, but he never becomes vain or overbearing; most of the time he scarcely seems aware of his differences. He does eventually lose sight of the bigger picture in pursuit of eternal fame, but the transition is gradual, and it isn’t out of character. I especially appreciate that his godliness is never used against Patroclus. The vast imbalance in their respective abilities doesn’t affect their relationship, and it is never used as an excuse to mistreat Patroclus. He is never afraid of Achilles, and I am so here for it.
And yet, even though the book is mostly about the men, it doesn’t forget about the women. Thetis serves as an antagonist throughout the story, but I could still sympathize with her. There’s no attempt to romanticize her marriage; the gods were afraid of her, and they attempted to contain her by forcing her to marry her rapist. As a minor goddess without the power of the Olympians, she has to reclaim her agency again and again. Her divinity does very little for her, besides granting her the same immortality granted to every other god, and, though she has been manipulated and abused by more powerful gods, she also has to rely on their favors if she wants to get anything done. In the end, she can’t even see Achilles after his death, because she cannot set foot in the Underworld. I may not like her treatment of Patroclus, whom she views as expendable and unworthy, but I understand her rage.
Then there is Briseis, who meets Patroclus as a slave but quickly becomes one of his dearest friends, who is in most respects soft-spoken and gentle-hearted but still so badass that she actually attempts to assassinate Pyrrhus before escaping into the sea, I mean, holy shit. I am so glad I watched the movie Troy before I read this book, because Miller’s Briseis has set a new standard for Briseises the world over, and I would have been very disappointed with the movie version if I’d read the book first. Her friendship with Patroclus is heartbreakingly sweet, and, though she falls in love with him, she accepts that he will always love Achilles and offers herself as a secondary partner without the him-or-me kind of bargaining that tends to drive me insane. Even after he kindly rejects her, she remains an integral part of his life, successfully building a small community of other captured Trojan women in Achilles’s camp. As a ghost denied entrance to the afterlife, he watches as she tries to kill Pyrrhus, and mourns her when she dies.
The spear flies from the top of the beach, soundless and precise. Its point hits her back like a stone tossed onto a floating leaf. The gulp of black water swallows her whole.
Phoinix sends a man out, a diver, to look for her body, but he does not find it. Maybe her gods are kinder than ours, and she will find rest. I would give my life again to make it so.
My heart breaks all over again every time I read that.