The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

Many, many stories recount the ill fated love between Helen of Sparta and Paris of Troy. It started with the face that launched a thousand ships, the bloody battle in the age of the heroes that once walked amongst us, and the long and perilous road home for the Greeks. A cursory glance at my bookshelf reveals just a few of such tales. If you’re looking for a historically accurate recount of the battle based on the Iliad, look no further than Lindsay Clarke’s The War at Troy, and The Return from Troy. If you’re looking for a novel penned in Helen’s point of view, I recommend Margaret George’s Helen of Troy.

The Song of Achilles tells the familiar story, however through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles beloved comrade and, according to Miller, lover.

“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, & our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.”

The song of achilles

Patroclus, himself a Prince, is cast out of his kingdom and sent to live with the gentle Peleus, King of the Myrmidons. It is here the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles blossoms from jealousy, to friendship, and amongst the lush landscape of Mt Pelion, something even more.

“I could recognise him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”

Legend had it that the son would be greater than his father, and so Achilles fate is sealed. Whilst being tutored by Chiron the legendary centaur on Mt Pelion, the call comes for Achilles to fulfill the prophecy. And the vehicle? Agamemnon’s ill fated war, thinly veiled as an attempt to win back his brothers errant wife, Helen. Even the sea nymph Thetis, his ice cold mother who disapproves of his relationship with Patroclus cannot undo the fate cast by the Gods. Her attempt to hide her son amongst the daughters of Lycomedes on the island of Skyros is eventually unfoiled by the clever Odysseus.

“I will go,” he said. “I will go to Troy.”
The rosy gleam of his lip, the fevered green of his eyes. There was not a line anywhere on his face, nothing creased or graying; all crisp. He was spring, golden and bright. Envious death would drink his blood, and grow young again.
He was watching me, his eyes as deep as earth.
“Will you come with me?” he asked.
The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death. “Yes,” I whipsered. “Yes.”
Relief broke in his face, and he reached for me. I let him hold me, let him press us length to length so close that nothing might fit between us.
Tears came, and fell. Above us, the constellations spun and the moon paced her weary course. We lay stricken and sleepless as the hours passed.”

All the usual suspects are here- Agamemnon, Menalaus, Ajax (both of them), King Priam, Hector, Nestor ….and the novel demonstrates that while you can cheat time and fate to an extent, in the end what’s written in the stars will always prevail. After all, even the great heroes were nothing but the pawns of the Gods.

I really enjoyed this novel. The characters were all given an innocent, almost YA type treatment, which made it enjoyable to read.

“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 can’t.”
“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.” He took my palm and held it to his. “Swear it.”
“Why me?”
“Because you’re the reason. Swear it.”
“I swear it,” I said, lost in the high color of his cheeks, the flame in his eyes.
“I swear it,” he echoed.
We sat like that a moment, hands touching. He grinned.
“I feel like I could eat the world raw.”

 

Achilles is shown in all his focused brute glory, but the novel also explores the insecurities and very human qualities displayed behind closed doors (or tent flaps, as the case may be). It shows the cost of unconditional love, and of staying true to a pre-destined version of yourself, with the weight of expectation lying heavy on your shoulders.

“Odysseus inclines his head. “True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” He spread his broad hands. “We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?” He smiles. “Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”

Anyone who loves a good historical fiction will love this novel. It’s a fast, quick read, but also written beautifully, with thought provoking passages. The ending is amazingly beautiful and haunting, and stayed with me long after the last page was turned.

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