The Song of Achilles

Recommendation: If classics are your thing, definitely

Where to read: Rainy weekend

Read with: An ouzo sour

In brief: I read Circe, enjoyed it very much and then decided the only thing to do was obtain Miller’s debut novel. I started this at what should have been bedtime and finished it bawling my eyes out at about 3am. This was an objectively bad life choice, and yet I regret nothing.

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion…

The Song of Achilles is The Iliad “if” Achilles and Patroclus were very, very gay. In telling the story of Achilles from the perspective of his far less martial husband/lover, Miller offers a different, gentler, almost rueful account of that famously bloodthirsty, honour-blind, tragically flawed and ultimately doomed hero.

In this story, Achilles, already prodigiously skilled as a warrior, is sent to Chiron as a young boy to be instructed in the arts of heroism (think Hercules and Phil in the Disney movie). Patroclus, already a devoted “friend”, runs away to join him. Like the famous hero Heracles, Achilles learns to play the lyre and the arts of healing, living a fundamentally gentle sort of existence. When Helen is taken and the legions of Greece called to war, he is confronted by the realisation that the world sees him only as an instrument of death, or, as Odysseus warns a devastated Patroclus, ‘he is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature… [He is] the finest the gods have ever made.’ At Troy, it rapidly becomes very clear that he is indeed the finest warrior ever born, but he treats it at first almost as sport or a game. Later, as he and Patroclus grow older in the shadow of war and his prophesied death, it becomes a way for him to win enough fame that it might feel purposeful.

Patroclus, by contrast, has no natural gift at war and choses not to learn to fight, becoming instead an accomplished healer. A cast-off for most of his life, he earns the respect of the Greeks at Troy through his skill and comes to know those men personally, while he struggles to manage Achilles’ capacity for inhumanity. Patroclus’ compassion, of course, ultimately leads to his death, as well as the deaths of Achilles and Hector, but it also provides a counterpoint to Achilles’ journey to fame, reputation and popularity. The ending was spoiled about 2,000 years ago and yet I still cried.

Through it all, Miller’s writing and gift for character shines – the obsession with reputation and honour in The Iliad is quite alien to a modern reader but in her hands it makes a compelling, sad sort of sense and Patroclus is a wonderfully drawn figure. Achilles’ formidable mother, Thetis, prefigures Miller’s later take on Circe and her many turning, trickster Odysseus is delightful, if something of a prick. Tonally and stylistically, it’s a good match for the Fagles translation, which I thoroughly recommend reading before or after indulging in this.

*The Iliad trans. Fagles (77).

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