Song of Achilles: A Novel
By Madeline Miller
This book was at once lyrical and heart rending. Not so much for how it ended, we knew how that was going to go, but for the intervening story of love and loss. I can well understand why it took her ten years to write the book. The historical accuracy, the beautiful phrasing and exquisite detail must have demanded it.
Patroclus says he was nothing special when he was born. “Quickly, I became a disappointment: small, slight. I was not fast I was not strong. I could not sing. The best that could be said of me was that I was not sickly.”
His father attempts to marry him off to Helen of Troy but ends up getting him pledged to “uphold Helen’s choice, and defend her husband against all who would take her from him.”
Then Patroclus accidentally kills an older boy, who is bullying him, simply by pushing him away. The boy trips, falls and hits his head.
“I would be exiled, and fostered in another man’s kingdom. In exchange for my weight in gold, they would rear me to manhood. I would have no parents, no family name, no inheritance. In our day, death was preferable. But my father was a practical man. My weight in gold was less than the expense of the lavish funeral my death would have demanded. This was how I came to be ten, and an orphan. This is how I came to Phthia.”
The passages of even simple events are exquisitely descriptive. “That night I dreamed of the dead boy, his skull cracked like an egg against the ground. He has followed me. The blood spreads, dark as spilled wine. His eyes open, and his mouth begins to move. I clap my hands over my ears. The voices of the dead were said to have the power to make the living mad. I must not hear him speak.”
Patroclus does not have an easy adjustment to his new home but he is fascinated by Achilles.
“Juggling was a trick of low mummers and beggars, but he made it something else, a living pattern painted on the air, so beautiful even I could not pretend disinterest.”
The juggling of figs - such an important scene, mesmerizing, exactly how it feels to be caught in the grasp of fascination with another. A connection is made.
“His gaze, which had been following the circling fruit, flickered to mine. I did not have time to look away before he said, softly but distinctly, “Catch.” A fig leapt from the pattern in a graceful arc towards me. It fell into the cup of my palms, soft and slightly warm. I was aware of the boys cheering.”
Achilles claims Patroclus for his constant companion and their friendship grows, deepening.
“I saw then how I had changed. I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty? It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough.”
The boys are separated by Achilles mother, a sea-nymph who wants Achilles to be a god though she doesn’t yet know how but she will make that happen. She sends Achilles off to be taught by the centaur, Chiron. Patroclus follows and Chiron agrees to shelter and teach them both.
“Dinner was more stew, and a thin type of bread that Chiron cooked on bronze sheets over the fire. For dessert, berries with mountain-gathered honey. As the fire dwindled, my eyes closed in half-dreaming. I was warm, and the ground beneath me was soft with moss and fallen leaves. I could not believe that only this morning I had woken in Peleus’ palace. This small clearing, the gleaming walls of the cave within, were more vivid than the white palace had ever been.”
It is an idyllic time, as the boys learn everything Chiron has to teach them. Achilles is most interested in music and Patroclus eventually asks to learn what Chiron can teach him of medicine.
As they grow into adulthood, Patroclus and Achilles’ friendship turns into a passionate romance, though it is very delicately handled by the author. The question of the nature of their relationship has been hotly debated since ancient times and this version of the story is beautifully told.
There is a lifetime packed into this one book and it feels like it at times, certain events are glossed over. The war goes on for years, but the author draws you on. The break between Achilles and Patroclus over Achilles pride is difficult to read but a sign of how well the author draws the reader into the story.
I highly recommend this book, it is one of the best I have read in years.