For a long time I wanted to read the Greek mythology. The only one I have read is Ransom by David Malouf, which mention Achilles in passing of his revenge on Hector was merciless: not only did he kill the bulwark of Troy, he dishonoured the corpse, dragging Hector’s body around the city three times. David Malouf’s rendition of Greek myth was flat and unengaging. Back then I struggled to finish even for a 244 pages wide space big font book. I also have Homer’s The Iliad on the pile but doubt I will ever get to it in the coming years.
But I am so glad that I read The Song of Achilles. It makes me want to read Greek Myth in its entirety if it is written like this!
The Song of Achilles is told from the perspective of Patroclus who, exiled by his father because he mistakenly killed a young man, to live in the court of Peleus, soon falls in love with his host’s son, the superhuman Achilles. From childhood, his demi-god status means he is more beautiful, swifter and skilled than all his peers. Everything that Patroclus isn’t. I start to feel sorry for Patroclus then. To be marked down in the eyes of men whose respect is only on weapon handling prowess. To be scorned upon as an unattractive person. I can’t help but to weep at Patroclus low self-esteem. Until he met Achilles.
I saw then how I had changed. I did not mind any more, that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed appears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty? It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough. – page 47
Astonishingly to Patroclus’s eyes, Achilles returns his love, and the two boys grow into adulthood to become the best of friends and best of lovers. They spent a beautiful and happy learning days with wise teacher and mentor, Chiron the centaur. There in the forest, they learn how to hunt, to look for herbs for remedies and it is where finally Patroclus found his calling and forte, he is good with medicine and healing.
The sense of impending tragedy is never far away from these lovers. Achilles, as I long believed about Mediterranean men, has to visit his mother on a daily basis. J It would be great if Achilles has a normal mother, but nope he has the sea nympth, Thetis as a mother who possesses a glare so deadly that make it known she did not like Patroclus. Not only that she foretold the future of her son, Achilles, that he will not come back alive if he goes to war with Troy. Achilles will die if Hector is killed.
This must be a grief for readers who have read the Greek myth to read every re-telling of myth and know what it is going to happen next. If you know what happens next in the story, would you go on and pick up a book that attempt to tell it in some other ways? I didn’t know how it was going to end, but I was told by the scary Thetis of things that about to happen, yet I must tell you do not feel that you would give this book a miss because what about to come next was the part which I felt really did it for me, the most spectacular and beautiful war scenes ever depicted in a book. It’s perhaps not appropriate to describe war scenes as beautiful but Miller has successfully did that, got me mesmerised in the way Achilles fought down his opponents.
A trumpet blew and my chest heaved. Now. It was now.
In a clanking, clattering mass we lurched into a run. This is how we fought – a dead-run charge that met the enemy in the middle. With enough momentum you could shatter their ranks at once.
Our lines went quickly ragged as some outstripped others in their speed, glory-hungry, eager to be the first to kill a real Trojan. By halfway across the plain we were no longer in ranks, or even kingdoms. The myrmidons had largely passed me, drifting in a cloud off to the left, and I mingled among Menelaus’ long-haired Spartans, all oiled and combed for the battle….
The front lines collided in an explosion of sound, a bust of spraying splinters and bronze and blood. A writhing mass of men and screams, sucking up rank after rank like Charybdis. I saw the mouths of men moving, but could not hear them. There was only the crash of men moving, but could not hear them. There was only the crash of shields against shields, of bronze against shattering woods. – page 225
Achilles was the Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks.
He (Achilles) was a marvel, shaft after shaft flying from him, spears that he wrenched easily from broken bodies on the ground to toss at new targets. Again and again I saw his wrist twist, exposing its pale underside, those flute-like bones thrusting elegantly forward. My spear sagged forgotten to the ground as I watched. I could not even see the ugliness of the deaths anymore, the brains, the shattered bones that I later I would wash from my skin and hair. All I swa was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet. – page 227
Achilles has long known that he must choose between a short, glorious life, and a long one lived in obscurity. Miller brilliantly ramps up the dramatic irony inherent in their story, their love and the circumstances that are imposed on Achilles to marry and sire a son. The irony between sacrificing Achilles’ concubine Briseis and Patroclus attempt to rescue Briseis for being the pawn and proof of their love. I love the twist of the plot of every situation that arises tested the human conditions of these Greek Gods.
This story has it all. Depicting Achilles as a father, son and a lover and Patroclus the faithful one, all the intensity of love, hatred, loyalty, war, political and warfare manoeuvres, the loss of death can be found here. Miller spent 10 years writing this book, her smooth prose engages me. I have never seen a more deeply affecting retelling of myth than this. To be able to tell a good story is the sign of a good writer. To be able to tell a good story after so many have told it before, is a sign of a great writer.
I’ll be rooting for this book to win the Orange Prize.
Hardback. Publisher: Bloomsbury 2011; Length: 352 pages; Setting: Greece. Source: Library copy. Finished reading at: 17th April 2012.
Other reviews (All raving ones):
Chinoiseries: Every single page tugged at my heartstrings and, as I rooted for Patroclus’ and Achilles’ happiness, I kept hoping that somehow the story would end differently, their wretched fates rewritten by one God or another. Of course the author stayed true to the main storyline, but I did find some comfort in the fact that both of them knew what was coming and how they made the best of every remaining minute. Achilles, so it appears, was more human than god after all.
Sam@Tiny library: I couldn’t have been more wrong about The Song Of Achilles. I thought it was going to be a stuffy read bogged down in mythological details but it was the opposite – it was a beautiful love story and a tale of how events can change and overcome people.
About the writer:
Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. For the last ten years she has been teaching and tutoring Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students. She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA, where she teaches and writes. The Song of Achilles is her first novel.