“Perhaps it is the greatest grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”
– Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles
This is the second book I’ve read this week that’s a new take on the tale in The Iliad: this was the less superior, but I’ll still give it 4/5 stars: ****
Let’s start with what I enjoyed: I adored the new take on Achilles. It’s refreshing to see Achilles’ life before Troy and the small details of his character made him jump from the page. I also really liked the perspective: in The Iliad, the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is a vital part of the story. The relationship contributes to the overall theme of the humanization of Achilles and whilst Homer’s Iliad never once explicitly stated that Achilles and his close friend Patroclus were lovers, this concept was asserted by some later authors. In later Greek writings, such as Plato’s Symposium, the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is held up as a model of romantic love.
The narrator, Patroclus, is an unusual narrator as he is not the centre of any classical/ancient text, though he is important. Nor is he a soldier, certainly not in The Song of Acilles. I expected Achilles to be the narrator, and was glad he was not. By making Patroclus the narrator, the author makes us see war and Achilles in a different light: by no means is Achilles perfect, and to see this through the eyes of someone who loves him is brilliant for the story. Like Homer, Miller makes Achilles feel human by using Patroclus.
I also enjoyed the romantic spin on Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship: I always felt that there was romance and nor just platonic love, and Marner takes this idea and runs with it. Patroclus is irrevocably in love with the magnetic, beautiful Achilles and there’s no hiding it. Achilles returns this love but its deepness is shown when Patroclus dies, and Achilles kills Hector and drags his body around Troy day after day. He also refuses to bury Patroclus. Grief galore. It’s heartbreaking, and even though there’s forty odd pages after Patroclus has died, Marner takes the idea that the soul cannot rest until buried (idea in Greek literature and one of my favourites; read Antigone by Sophocles and Book 9 of The Odyssey for more!) and uses this to tell us of Achilles’ killing of Hector and the lovers eventual reunion in the Underworld.
However, though I have much praise for this book, I have some problems. Firstly, the narrative style: Patroclus isn’t a serious, clever warrior, but I felt as though the narrative slipped from beautiful to childish and there was often moments where I was sick of the personal pronouns:
However, these are minor. Overall, there’s humour (I adored Odysseus in this) and heartbreaking love and grief. Read it, but don’t expect it to be a utter masterpiece. Enjoyable, moving, but nothing else.