Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bon blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
I found this book fairly traditionally – I walked into Waterstones and asked the shop assistant for a fiction book set in Ancient Greece, and I walked away with the only two Ancient Greek fiction books had in store at the time; ‘The Silence of the Girls’ and this – I’m not entirely sure I twigged at the time that they were both retellings of the Trojan War, but I read them far enough apart that it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
It is a retelling of the Iliad which begins before the marriage of Helen of Troy ever takes place, voiced from the perspective of Patroclus and set in a time where gods were not just characters in stories – they walked amongst you, as demonstrated by Achilles immortal mother Thetis.
In interview, Madeline Miller discusses her fascination with the character Patroclus in Homer’s ‘The Iliad’. She talks of the stunning ten years spent writing and re-writing this story to finally produce this beautiful telling of the love between the famous Achilles and the companion closest to his heart. The depth of Achille’s regard for Patroclus has led some to believe that they were lovers, a theory that Miller has woven into a heartwarming tale of humanity, pride, joy and pain that touched me deeply.
It is well known that Achilles perished during the Trojen War, with ‘Achilles Heel’ being a phrase in common use and the film ‘Troy’ having made such a hit in 2004. I personally loved the film, rewatching it multiple times, and was fascinated to see the differences between the film and ‘The Song Of Achilles’. Since one was a Hollywood Hit and the other written by a classical history scholar, I think I know which one I am placing more stock by…
So whilst the death of Achilles is antipated in the book, the notion that he knew that before he left is one that causes Patroclus in particular a large amount of grief, though does not seem to particularly bother Achilles in the way that one might expect. The anticipated bereavement is one that Patroclus ponders over and mixes with their love in a bittersweet manner as the book progresses. The cruel decision of Achilles to withdraw his aid from the army after his clash with Menelaus, at the cost of many greek lives, is one that causes a rift between Achilles and his lover, casting a new light on his character for both readers and Patroclus himself. Ultimately Achilles pride was what bought about his downfall in the well-known, tragic turn of events.
Knowing the ending did not in any way ruin the book for me – even knowing to a degree how the Trojan War plays out in a blow-by-blow manner didn’t ruin the anticipation or suspense as Miller has put her own twist and words to the tale in such a manner as draws you in and fascinates you in turn. It is beautifully written and leaves you at such a powerful emotional peak that you are left in awe of the love that Achilles and Patroclus shared. I would recommend it to anyone looking for an emotionally charged classic retelling.