“Name one hero who was happy.”
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.
“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.
“I know. They never let you be famous and happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.
“I’m going to be the first.”
- Patroclus and Achilles, in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles
Miller’s 2018 book, Circe, was a big deal in the literary world, but for some reason I was more drawn to her first novel, The Song of Achilles. It’s a pretty simple plot summary if you’re familiar with your Homer—it’s the story of Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War, and his romance with Patroclus, a minor character in the Illiad who affects the entire outcome of the war. If you’re not familiar with Homer, this might be an even better read; you’ll be able to catch up on the Trojan war without slogging through translations of ancient poetry, and you won’t have any idea what happens.
The Song of Achilles is told from Patroclus’ point of view. A prince exiled by his father for accidentally killing another boy, he is sent away to be fostered by Achilles’ father, and the two grow up together, fall in love, and eventually go to war together. Achilles is the son of a goddess and a mortal man, and, at sixteen, is the greatest warrior of his time. Patroclus never wants to kill anyone again, but goes to war to be with Achilles.
At first, I found Patroclus a bit boring and codependent. He’s utterly devoted to Achilles from day one, and doesn’t have many goals or skills of his own. Because the story is told in first person, it’s even harder to grasp who Patroclus is, because all he’s thinking about is Achilles. (This is a phenomenon you may be familiar with from Twilight—and if you couldn’t stomach it there, you won’t be able to here, either). But as Patroclus grows up through the book, it becomes clear that it is his love and humility that make him special in a culture that values male aggression, pride, and greed. Achilles, born the greatest warrior the Greeks have ever known, appreciates this about him from the beginning. In case you don’t remember the Illiad, I won’t give spoilers other than to say that it is a tragedy, so this story reads as a tribute to Patroclus and a mourning song for a world that craves war without ever really understanding why.
Miller’s background is in Classics, so her research is excellent, and she handles the level of detail so deftly it’s hard to remember it’s set 3,000 years ago. There’s some issues with the first person narration: after a few passages throughout where the story randomly slips into present tense, it ultimately it fails the writer as a valid point of view. There are things that mythological epics can pull off that novels just can’t, and I think Miller fell a few times into that gap, trying to have sweeping drama and elegiac conflict but also have intimacy and the details of daily life. The result is that the drama feels overdone, and the intimacy can feel cheesy. If Miller wanted to walk that line, she shouldn’t have chose the first person, which also makes Patroclus seem even less heroic than he actually is. However, most of this isn’t an issue until the last few chapters.
This would be a great poolside read, but probably better for fans of romances or YA fantasy than fans of epics or serious literature. Luckily, I like both.