The Song of Achilles is the début novel of Madeline Miller and winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. Set in Ancient Greece in the time of Gods and heroes it tells the story of Achilles, the greatest hero of them all, through the eyes of the man who loved him most.
Patroclus is the disappointing son of a lesser King, a prince in name and little else. He has a quiet childhood but for one thing – his father urges him to take an offering to King Tyndareus and put forth his name as a suitor for his youngest daughter, the beautiful Helen of Sparta. Her suitors swear an oath to defend the husband of her choice from anyone who would steal her away. Helen marries Menelaus, brother of the powerful Agamemnon, and Patroclus returns home dazed, as if it were all a strange dream.
As a young boy he is exiled to the island of Phthia to be fostered under the care of King Peleus, married to the sea-nymph Thetis and father of the handsome, athletic Prince Achilles. Patroclus boards with the other boys in the palace, an outcast, envious of shinning Achilles, until one day they become unlikely friends. But Achilles is no mere prince. It is prophesied that one day he will become the greatest warrior of his generation, and his mother will stop at nothing to protect her son and safeguard his reputation.
Patroclus and Achilles grow to men with a bond deeper than friendship, until news comes of war with Troy. Helen of Sparta has been taken. Agamemnon seeks to unite the Greeks, promising glory and honor and riches. He needs Achilles to fight for him. But if Achilles goes to Troy he will never return. And Patroclus, bound by love, will follow him anywhere, even into death.
The Iliad is one of the greatest stories in the Western canon, arguably the greatest, universally known and loved. The characters are heroes, big names with big histories and a lot to live up to. There’s Odysseus, sharp-tongued Prince of Ithaca, the towering Ajax, greedy Agamemnon, brave Hector, vain Paris, beautiful Helen, and Achilles – part divine, powerful, quick-footed. Their reputations very much precede them, and part of the fun in reading a modern adaptation of a classic is returning again to these iconic characters, exploring their stories in new ways or from a different point of view. Because Patroclus narrates the story in first person we see them as he does; as Kings and Princes and towering historical figures, but also, first and foremost, as men. Legends brought to life.
The Song of Achilles is as much the story of Patroclus as Achilles, innovative and imaginatively rich in the telling. Madeline Miller uses modern techniques of prose, tense and point of view to narrate a very personal version of an epic history. This brings you closer to the story, to Patroclus. It doesn’t read like historical fiction. The sentences are sparse, sometimes clipped, the language formal, yet the tone relaxed and conversational. Through all this Patroclus lives on the page, you come to care for him, and as the story progresses so too does that terrible foreshadowing. We know what happens. So how is Patroclus going to tell the rest of the story?
The end of The Song of Achilles connected with me on a very personal level. It touched a nerve, deeply buried, and forced me to confront my fear of death and anxiety about the afterlife, both pertinent themes in Greek Mythology. Like Odysseus says of his wife Penelope, his only consolation should he die is that they would meet again in the underworld.
“I would not wish to be there without her.”
The Song of Achilles is a remarkable achievement, a modern twist on an epic classic. But also, at its core, a beautiful imagining of a legendary love story.