About a third of the way through The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I realized that I had apparently forgotten every single thing I knew about the Trojan War. This is an embarrassing admission. I was reading and thinking to myself, oh… this is such a sweet love story. Achilles and Patroclus 4eva! Greek mythology fan fiction is my new jam! And then… I remembered what actually happens in the Illiad, and I almost stopped reading.
The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Illiad from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest friend, and, in Miller’s re-imagining, his great love. As a child, Patroclus accidentally kills another boy and is exiled to the home of Achilles’ father, Peleus to be fostered. Slowly, awkward, unloved Patroclus is befriended by beautiful, half-god Achilles. The first third of the book concerns itself with their growing relationship as childhood infatuation develops into adolescent love, and this section is just so lovely. Here, let me show you…
I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This and this and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.
Miller’s writing is modern, clean, and unfussy. She takes the stuff of legends and myths and draws out the real, human emotions underneath, capturing all of the delicious pleasure and torture of young love in a way that just really, really worked for me.
And then we’re reminded that this is ancient Greece, and there is no such thing as a happy love story. Achilles and Patroclus are called down from their years training in the mountains with the centaur Chiron (who is the BEST by the way! I want to read a book that is just Chiron hanging out in the mountains doing stuff) when Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, runs off with Paris, a prince of Troy. Achilles, half god and fated for greatness, cannot resist the fame and glory that war promises.
And so Achilles and Patroclus are off to Troy with Achilles prophesied to die in the war and Patroclus heartbroken but unable to leave Achilles’ side. It’s at this point that I kind of wanted to put the book in the freezer (metaphorically of course, I was reading on my iPad). Miller did such a good job of making me fall in love with their relationship that it was gut-wrenching knowing what was coming. Gut-wrenching but utterly compelling and impossible to stop reading.