Book Review: The Song of Achilles

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It’s Easter Sunday, and I don’t know, is it only me for whom a review of a book about the Trojan War seems perfectly suited to an Easter blog post?  The New Testament was written in Greek, after all, and Christianity borrows from gnostic philosophy.  Perhaps only someone who seriously contemplated a classics major and comes from a liberal arts background would associate Easter with Achilles, but whatever.

The Song of Achilles, a novel by Madeline Miler, is told from the first person perspective of Patroclus.  Does anyone out there remember Patroclus?  Best friend of Achilles, the guy whose death finally propels Achilles out of his tent where he’s been sulking away for months and months?  In Miller’s novel, Patroclus is also Achilles’ lover.  Through Patroclus, we meet all the major figures of the Trojan War…Hector, Priam, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and, of course, Achilles.  And then you know what happens in the end for almost everyone–bloody death.  Except for Odysseus, who wanders around for a long time, and then I confess, I don’t know what happens to him after he gets back home and gets rid of all those pesky suitors.

I read this novel in fits and starts, before a trip, during a trip, a little bit after a trip.  Doesn’t the particular way in which you read a book matter so much to your experience of it?  I read Invisible Man once during a weekend stay in Jackson, Mississippi, sleeping on a mattress on the floor in an empty apartment with no television, no telephone, and no computer.  And boy, did I love that novel.  In Cold Blood crept up on me during another weekend in Mississippi.  Perhaps being in Mississippi makes for especially good reading experiences. I wouldn’t be surprised.

In fits and starts, The Song of Achilles crept up on me.  If you’d asked me whether I liked it while I was reading it, I probably would’ve shrugged.  But once the Trojan War got started, things definitely picked up.  In fact, I kind of wish the Trojan War had been longer, and all the stuff that came before about Achilles’ life had been shorter.  How often do you hear that?  “I really wish the Trojan War had been longer.”

Achilles attending a wounded Patroclus

If you’re familiar with the Iliad, it’s fun to see the characters from a different perspective.  I especially liked Miller’s take on Odysseus, who is clever, but not always particularly likable.  Agamemnon is pretty much how you’d expect, full of himself and blustering.  But you also get to meet an actual woman, Briseis.  She’s in the Illiad, too, but not as an actual human being with feelings and intelligence and, you know, a personality.

I guess for a lot of folks the big deal in The Song of Achilles is that Achilles and Patroclus are lovers.  Miller certainly wants to suggest that it would have been problematic for them.  I did not actually become a classics major, but it’s my understanding that two men loving each other and having sex with each other wasn’t really very unusual in Ancient Greece.  The Iliad, as far as I know, takes place in a time before the rise of the Greek city-states, so it’s hard to say exactly what they thought of men loving each other back then.  It probably was unusual if the two were equals in status, which is why Achilles’ son, Pyrryhus, assumes that Patroclus was Achilles’ slave.

I think the larger point is, who wouldn’t fall in love with Achilles?  He’s half-divine, right (though, also kind of a divine pain in the ass sometimes)?  Patroclus’ question is really, out of all the people Achilles could have had, why did he pick me?  And this is a question that faces even people who are not the lovers of semi-divine, Greek heroes like Achilles.  Even though both Achilles and Patroclus annoyed me at various points in the novel, I still found myself tearing up at the end of the book.  Yes, they both die.  No spoiler there.  But there’s more in Miller’s telling, and that more was quite moving.

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