I expect that most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the Trojan War, even if you never read the Iliad, yes? The Greeks sail to Troy in pursuit of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships” (that’s these ships!), the most beautiful woman in the world, stolen from her king-husband Menelaus by the Trojan prince Paris. They fight at the gates of Troy for ten years before Odysseus’s characteristically clever notion of the big wooden horse (the Trojan horse of idiom) wins the war for the Greeks. Achilles is a hero of the war, on the Greeks’ side. He had been sitting the war out in protest against an offense to his pride when his close friend (and, most scholars agree, lover) Patroclus goes into battle and is killed. In the opening scene of the Iliad, Achilles is mad with grief and rage, about to rush into battle, kill Hector, and be killed by Paris.
That’s the background. Miller, a scholar of ancient languages (including Greek) and theatre has written a novel from Patroclus’s point of view. This gave her quite a bit of leeway, since Patroclus is not given much coverage in Homer or in ancient myth generally; she got to do what she wanted with him. Here, we see him grow up from a boy: he was a disappointment to his father, then was exiled in dishonor and sent away to be fostered in another kingdom, where Achilles is the prince and heir. The two boys form a decidedly unlikely friendship, with Patroclus the dishonored and weak following in the footsteps of Achilles, whose future is prophesied to be something enormous: he will be Aristos Achaion, the greatest of the Greeks.
Patroclus joins Achilles in his studies and their bond grows closer until they become lovers. They are not eager to join the Greeks and sail to Troy to fight for another king’s wife, but circumstances (and Odysseus, the crafty one) conspire to see them off. From there, you can revisit my synopsis of the Iliad, above – except that we keep Patroclus’s perspective, which actually made the Trojan War that I thought I knew so well spring fresh from the page.
And that is one of the several strengths of this book: that an ancient myth that is familiar to many readers, like me, becomes so real, new, crisp & juicy in Miller’s hands. It definitely made me want to go back and reread the Iliad, as well as other cited works. (Check out the Character Glossary, whether you think you need it or not, for background as well as mentions of other books you’ll want to go find.) The myth of the Trojan War comes alive with Patroclus as it hasn’t before.
Another great strength is the emotional impact Miller achieves. This book is moving, sweet, heartfelt, powerful, in its tragedies as in its loving moments – and the tragedies are plentiful. There is visceral wrath in Achilles’s mother Thetis and her hatred of all mortals and Patroclus in particular; that emotion comes through just as strongly as the love that makes Patroclus put aside jealousy and envy, makes him put Achilles’s needs before his own. I noticed that the first-person voice of Patroclus rarely uses the name Achilles, but just refers to his lover as “he” – thus emphasizing the extent to which Achilles is the center of his world.
As I said at the start of this review, I want more of this! It’s so well done. If you’re taking requests, Ms. Miller, I would like to read a book about what happened to the happy family of Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus following the conclusion of the Odyssey: how does Odysseus manage to gracefully step down from power and transfer to Telemachus without sacrificing any of his machismo? Reading The Song of Achilles raised this question for me – how a king could step down and preserve his dignity and quality of life. I wonder, too, whether Penelope ever gets grumpy about all the philandering Odysseus did along his homeward journey, while she was standing strong against the suitors.
In a nutshell, this retelling of the Trojan War and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is lovely, loving, sweet and deeply emotional; it preserves the grand, sweeping scale and feeling of humanity and drama in the original, but brings it freshly alive in an appealingly different format. The Song of Achilles made me sigh and think and cry, and I wanted more when it was all gone. This may very well be the best book I’ve read in 2012.