It’s the rare book that makes me want to read it again as soon as I finish it, but The Song of Achilles is a rare enough treat that it does exactly that. This tale of Mythological characters is larger than life but reads as intimately as the best of any historical fiction. You do believe that gods and goddesses walk among mortal men, that centaurs are real, and prophecies foretell the tragically inescapable fates of men.
As the title suggests, the story centers on Achilles, the greatest warrior of his generation and arguably the most golden of all of the Greek heroes. If you are shaky on your Greek mythology, Achilles is the son of a mortal, Peleus, and the minor goddess, Thetis. With such parentage, Achilles has destiny weighting him down. This is a story of tragedy, of love, of jealousy, of pride. Would you expect any less of the Greeks?
First, though, we meet 9-year-old Patroclus, an outcast prince who is exiled to the home of Peleus, King of the Myrmidons. Peleus has taken in other such exiles and made a home for them in his land. He feeds them, educates them, and trains them to fight for him. Peleus is not a fool. An exile himself, the fact that Peleus sired a son with a goddess brought him much renown and he was a self-made King, to boot. Patroclus arrives, scared and lonely and angry at the world. His anger centers on one boy in particular – the charming, athletic golden child who is popular with everyone in the kingdom, Prince Achilles. Patroclus has always been an outsider and Achilles is everything he is not. The two boys are the same age, but worlds apart in many ways.
Just when I thought a darker nature of Achilles would come to light, exposing him as a bully and ruffian, the exact opposite is revealed. The young Achilles makes a point to befriend Patroclus and include him in the camaraderie of the other boys. The reader sees an early glimpse of why Achilles is so beloved – his kindness, his warmth, his loyalty, his utter lack of meanness or ulterior motives. His character shines as brightly as his golden hair. The two boys bond and Patroclus becomes the lifelong companion to Achilles.
As the two grow older, Achilles appears comfortable with his destiny, something he doesn’t yet fully comprehend. He only knows that he is and will be the greatest warrior of his time. It’s what he was born to do. We see Achilles through Patroclus, and watch as the two form a strong friendship and an even stronger romantic attraction. Achilles will go nowhere willingly without Patroclus, and Patroclus will tirelessly search out Achilles when twists of fate forcibly remove him.
When the boys are 16, war erupts – a little event you may have heard of called the Trojan War. A guy likes a girl and kidnaps her from her husband and nations destroy each other for honor and glory. The destiny of Achilles has arrived. He is Aristos achaion, the best of the Greeks.
All of the Greek all-stars are there – Odysseus, Ajax, Menelaus, Paris, Helen, Hector, and Agamemnon. It’s a bloody years-long campaign. As Achilles is hailed by the Greeks and their allies and feared by the Trojans, his pride and honor take a toll. Achilles loses his deeper, kinder nature and Patroclus takes on the task of salvaging the shreds of the man he once knew.
I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers by saying the the story doesn’t end well. And, yet, it does. Miller has written an engrossing, captivating account of one man’s journey to heroism and, more interestingly, the journey of his significant other as the hero transforms in front of him. Patroclus knew from an early age that Achilles was destined for greatness, was already great, but his public crowning as hero was bittersweet and Patroclus is both in awe and in fear of what this all means for Achilles.
While not all of the myth surrounding Achilles shows up in the book, Miller interweaves the most logical pieces in her narrative. One glaring omission is Achilles being shot in the heel, his one vulnerable spot. However, her use of his pride as his own Achilles’ Heel is thought-provoking and clever. There is a great interview with Madeline Miller here and see her discuss The Song of Achilleshere.