The Song of Achilles is the first novel from Madeline Miller, and winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012. It is a retelling of Homer’s The Iliad. I don’t know if there is anyone unfamiliar with the basic plot of that story. The reputed beauty of Helen, her leaving her husband Menelaus for Paris, the war between Greece and Troy in her name, and the subsequent annihilation of that once proud nation. Then there are the heroes whose fame has come down through the ages, Agamemnon, Priam, Hector, Odysseus and perhaps greatest of them all Achilles. Miller’s book brings all this to life through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles long time companion, lover and friend.
Much of the story is about the relationship between these two. Patroclus is exiled by his father at a young age and sent to live in the court of King Peleus, Achilles father. There his soon made Achilles immortal companion, and from then on is rarely away from his side. They train together, they eat together and they sleep together. We see the tenderness and love that grows between them. We also get to see how Patroclus, who is just a man after all, feels as he stands in the shadow of this man who is also a god, and who is destined for glory and immortality. He loves Achilles knowing that the Fates have determined that price of his beloved’s fame and honour is his death. It seems that it is impossible for anyone, even the great Achilles to be both man and god forever, at some point he must choose between being a man who will love and be loved, but will die forgotten, or abandon his human feelings and become a god forever remembered.
This is a great book, worthy of the praise being heaped on it. The sensitivity and delicacy of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is beautiful and could easily be placed beside any of the great loves stories of all time. Over the centuries scholars and poets have argued about the relationship between these two characters. Were they lovers, or just good friends. Aeschylus, Plato and Aeschines all portrayed them as lovers. It has mainly been in later interpretations that doubt has been cast on their relationship, Medieval Christian writers cast them as heterosexuals that loved each other like brothers only. Miller’s book serves to re-join them, I believe as they should be.
Apart from anything else, this book is a reminder of the debt owed by all writers to the Classical Greeks. Long before Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolkien, the Greeks told stories of heroes and gods, of great battles and tragedy, of lusts and betrayals that are the elements of all great story-telling. Miller has done justice to this story and breathed new life into it, allowing the likes of Patroclus and Achilles to live on again.