Even though it was published in 2012, The Song of Achilles has recently been making it’s round on social media, and since I am a lover of Greek and Roman mythology, I wasted no time ordering it and putting it on my to be read list.
Since I do know about Achilles’ mythological tale, I decided to try and keep myself in the dark as much as possible about this novel and I have to say I was surprised once I started reading that it was Patroclus who was telling his story with Achilles. I presumed it would be from Achilles’ perspective, but this way, Achilles almost came across God-like with the descriptions Patroclus gave with his appearance which perhaps was a good twist with who Achilles is known to be in mythology.
It began with Patroclus’ childhood and the description of how Helen of Troy became Menelaus’ Bride which was beautiful foreshadowing for what was to happen and the cause of the Trojan War. Then we move on to how Patroclus was exiled from being a Prince and how he met Achilles. I was surprised to then see that it took a more lovers approach. From the versions of Achilles stories I had heard and seen, they are merely best friends, or even in some cases — cousins — so it was interesting to see this different approach. What I loved was that it was not shunned. In fact, later in the book it is claimed that many young boys take others as lovers before they then wed a woman. Achilles and Patroclus are never dishonoured with their choices – apart from perhaps Achilles’ mother.
But if I am honest, I did feel up until the beginning of the Trojan war, it did feel as if there was a list Miller needed to go through about Patroclus’ life. This made it feel a bit distant for me, but perhaps it’s because I already knew quite a bit from my own knowledge. If you had no clue who Achilles or Patroclus were, then this would be perfect as it gives a full detailed of their life and relationship together. But for me, it wasn’t until Odysseys’ came and finally persuaded Achilles to join the war. This was where I felt the full extend of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship as you could see the fear and love between them. I also loved the fact that since this is mythology, the reader more than likely either knows or can research the ending of their story, and so Miller doesn’t try to cover it up. Achilles knows if he fights in the Trojan war he will not survive, and with this, you get a sense of dyer need that Patroclus has to be with the man he loves. He is determined to avoid this ending to the point where he discovers that if Achilles kills Hector, the eldest son of the King of Troy, then his death will soon be after. With revealing this to Achilles, I love the juxtaposition of Achilles constantly stating ‘what has Hector ever done to me?’ in order to avoid killing him and securing his own fate. Reading the rest of the story, I did forget what it was that Hector did do in order for Achilles to feel the urge to slaughter him, and so it felt like a good mystery for the remainder of the story before that fatal time.
I also felt it very refreshing to have a female character introduced, Briseis. This was another name I did not remember from my own knowledge, and I found it so refreshing to mix her in with Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, that for once it was Patroclus that was desired and not Achilles. It gave a refreshing take on how women were during this time — that they were mere objects that the men could claim. This gave another side of Achilles as he saved these women from rape and torment from the other men. It gave a softer side to route for him and to have his fate more heart-wrenching.
If I am honest, I felt up to this point that the characters were a bit one sided. You had Patroclus who just wanted to keep Achilles safe, you had Achilles who wanted Patroclus but also glory. You had the Kings who wanted glory. But introducing Briseis, it gave another side to Patroclus. It proved that he was more than just Achilles side puppy. That he could see a life if he hadn’t met Achilles, but he was choosing to stay not just because he didn’t have another option. Then I loved the contrast of Achilles, how his pride was more important to him than glory. To see the darkness that even Patroclus couldn’t see the man he loved at that point. It was at this moment I remembered Patroclus’ fate. I actually preferred that I spent the entire book beforehand knowing Achilles’ death and not Patroclus, so when it wasn’t until he was riding off in Achilles armour I knew what was to happen. I was surprised with how much more of the book was left. I had also heard rumours that it was an emotional ending, so I was intrigued with the route the book would take. And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. To have the story continued after the protagonists died was something I had never read before. It was heartbreaking to still see the events play out in Patroclus’ eyes, but for him not to be able to do anything about it due to being a spirit. To see the grief Achilles sought, the anger and the revenge he craved. I almost routed for what he did to Hector, to see Achilles be driven made with loss. I did not expect this book to be a love story, a tragic one to that, and yet, here I was at the end being lost in the grief between the two characters. It gave such a different edge, something that I do feel greek mythology can loose from time to time. Paris and Helen are meant to be the love story, the one that Aphrodite routes for, and yet this connection between Achilles and Patroclus felt so much stronger. The fact that Achilles knows his fate with his actions, and yet he does it anyway because he desperately wants to be with the one he loves.
It was a nice take, and the ending where Patroclus is desperate to be laid to rest properly so he can be with Achilles. The suspense that it felt that it would never happen, that Patroclus would roam his days as a spirit, never being with the man he loves again. I had never despised a character as much as I did Achilles son, Neoptolemus, not allowing Patroclus the true burial he deserved. So even though I did not have much remorse for Thetis, I did feel her grief for her son as she finally named Patroclus so the two could be reunited.
This is a hard book for me to judge because I did feel I preferred some parts more than others. I wasn’t huge on the first half, where it did feel a bit slow and just going through the motions rather than diving into the characters. But the ending is something I have never read before. The emotion behind it and the way the story is told did feel gripping and heart-wrenching. I can see why this book is being talked about, and I would pick it up again. Perhaps this is a good book for someone who does not know the story of Achilles, so you can get an insight to his entire life. I didn’t cry at the end as many have claimed – although it does take an awful lot for me to cry. But I did feel the emotion, and could still recommend the book just for the ending alone.