This was the second book I read after my fast from reading for Lent was over—and it was like plunging into icy waters. It is shocking, and amazing. In case I’d forgotten what a good story could do, Song of Achilles was ready to show me.
If you’ve read Homer’s Iliad or paid attention in sixth grade social studies, then you probably know the story of Achilles and Patroclus in the Trojan War. It’s a story that has been retold many times and continues to snag our imaginations. In Madeline Miller’s rendition, Achilles and Patroclus grow up together in the home of Achilles’s father Peleus. They train together with Chiron, the trainer of other great warriors, and they fall in love. But they know there will be a time when Achilles is asked to fight. When Helen is kidnapped by Paris and Agamemnon calls upon the other Greek kings’ oaths of loyalty to help him fight Troy, Achilles is asked to go.
Thetis, Achilles’s mother, does not believe that this is the right war for Achilles to prove his strength in. She kidnaps him and takes him to an island where he is forced to marry a young girl, Deidameia. Again, Patroclus finds him, but not before Deidameia has become pregnant. They stay on Scyros for a while, hoping the rest of the warring world will forget them. But they do not. Another great warrior, Odysseus, discovers them there and reveals a prophecy:
If you do not come to Troy, your godhead will wither in you, unused. Your strength will diminish. …If you go to Troy, your fame will be so great that a man will be written into eternal legend just for having passed a cup to you.
Thetis reveals the rest of the prophecy: If you go to Troy, you will never return. You will die a young man there.
Of course, we know what Achilles chooses. Rather than live out the rest of his days with Patroclus and die forgotten, Achilles goes to the war.
While in Troy, Achilles’s pride (hubris) overtakes him. He makes stupid decisions, dueling with Agamemnon in an epic power struggle. Patroclus is not interested in their own petty war. One of the traditions is for the warriors to take girls as their concubines from the villages they destroy. Achilles, as the greatest warrior, always gets first pick. Patroclus persuades him to start taking as many girls as possible, to save them from the rest of the soldiers who will surely rape and/or kill them. Patroclus becomes known as a healer within the Greek camps, well liked by all.
The war continues, and the men begin to speak badly about Achilles for his lack of action. But Achilles is not ready to die. He has allowed Hector, the Trojans’ greatest warrior, to live for ten years because he knows that once Hector dies, the war will soon end—and his own death will be imminent. But until Achilles intervenes, the Trojans are winning. Patroclus cannot bear to see all of the men he has come to know, the ones he has nursed back to health for ten years, dying. And he cannot bear to see Achilles maligned. And so Patroclus makes the decision that he has come to be famous for: dressed in Achilles’s armor, he joins the battle. What follows is one of the most breathtaking scenes I’ve ever read. I can’t describe it here—you just need to read it.
The story is as heart-wrenching as the tender love that Patroclus has for Achilles. It’s a long book, and you see every detail of their lives from a young age. You see them both lose their innocence and change with the effects of war and time. But Patroclus remains loyal. His dedication is shown in his martyrdom—he saves Achilles’s reputation and the lives of the Greeks.
I love that in this retelling, Achilles is made more personal and even when his pride makes you angry, you see him through the loving narration of Patroclus, who always remembers the sweet, golden-haired boy he fell in love with. A love story like this, with so much history between them, is rare. And although Achilles is undoubtedly the better warrior, Patroclus emerges as the hero of the story.