I read the The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller with my book club and it really surprised me. Expecting a Trojan War story, I not only got that, but also a coming-of-age story, a Greek mythology story, and a vivid portrait of love and friendship all set in ancient Greece over a period of 18 years.
In Chapter 1, I immediately empathized with Patroclus, the narrator, when he is reflecting on his life at five years old. The son of a King, and a simple-minded mother, made simple from her father striking her head with a sword, Patroclus is watching the Olympic games, when he sees Achilles for the first time, and thinks of him like this, “a light-haired runner, whose heels were flashing pink as licking tongues”.
The language in this book is honest, intimate, spirit-like, and soulful, which vested me in the characters. When Patroclus reflects on his relationship with Achilles here is his thought. “Our friendship came all at once...like spring floods from the mountains”
The story is rich with the history of Greece. My senses were submerged into the Kingdoms of Argos and Phthia, and Troy, where I could taste the wine, bread, and olive oil, see the atrocities of war, and feel the oppression of women, who were chattel: brides of arranged marriages, war prizes, and sacrifices, where “deflowering was as binding as a marriage vow,” and young men had therapons.
The actions of the gods and half-gods: Achilles, Chiron, and Thetis were innately human and filled with the universal human struggles with cultural norms, family disapproval, and truths on coming out as a couple when society and family is against it. The theme that love never fails is conveyed from the start. Patroclus' describes his love for Achilles here, “We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.”
I liked the exploration of grief and love in the wake of death. Chiron states, “Perhaps it is the greater grief after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.” In the final chapter, Odysseus compares the love between Patroclus and Achilles to that of his own love with his wife Penelope, which in itself, rests one of the themes of the story. Love is love, regardless of societies’ rules around it.
The book made me feel. I laughed, I cried, I understood. The Song of Achilles is a surprising historical gay love story, tenderly honest, human and heroic. Way to go Miller!