“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, & our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.”― Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles
Last week, my attempts to put out anything remotely worth reading were thwarted by a mild bout of COVID. While the fog that filled every inch of me stole most of my ability to piece together a coherent sentence — and in part of a very long power outage one night — I was able to finish a book I had attempted to start months ago.
This is very much a sharp deviation from my usual genre. I don’t think I’ve picked up anything remotely romantic or fantastic like this in a long time. That being said, I’ve always been a fan of the contemporary, quasi-mythological fad in literature (though I still can’t bring myself to pick up Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”). And, after reading this, I hope it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
While Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles” doesn’t exactly fall into that subset, it definitely tells a new story — in my opinion, the truer story, though there are plenty, I’m sure, who would argue that.
The legend of Achilles is not an unknown one. He is not a man painted romantic or soft. From the first line of Homer’s “The Iliad,” we know this to be true: “Sing, muse, of the wrath of Achilles.”
The long and short of it is that, once dishonored by Agamemnon, Achilles chooses to withdraw from the war against Troy. It is only when Patroclus, dressed in Achilles’ armor, falls in battle at the hand of Hector, that Achilles’ great grief manifests into wrath, and he leads the Achaeans to victory.
Which begs the question: What was Patroclus to you, Achilles? This is not Paris, whose loud and calamitous love for Helen launched a thousand ships. This is something quiet and adoring, with many names over the years that provide many answers: companion, servant, cousin, friend.
Miller chooses, in her book, to call them lovers, and it sated an itch I never knew I had. With language and prose that stay true to the poetic nature of the beasts in question, young Patroclus is exiled from his home after killing another boy, and he ends up in the care of King Peleus, father of Achilles.
Though he is awkward and slight among the other adopted sons of the king, Patroclus is quick to unwittingly win the favor of Achilles, and the pair succumb immediately to something that neither of them quite understand. Young, inexperienced, and without the wherewithal to call it anything other than friendship, they exist together in a juxtaposed sort of harmony: Achilles, a half-god destined for greatness, and Patroclus, mortal and grounded, with the level-headedness of each.
This bond, of course, strengthens with age and eventually becomes love. It’s an intense love, bright like a flash that you know will have to burn out eventually, because you know the tale of Patroclus and Achilles. It’s always hanging in the air like a knife or a guillotine or something else, something more menacing.
But this fact makes it all the more thrilling, too, amplified by the way Miller’s prose exceeds even the epics these characters are torn from. Of Achilles, Patroclus says, “I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.” Which answers my previous question: Achilles, what did this man mean to you? And, moreso, it brings a certain realism to the characters and a level of compassion that makes even godliness seem hungry for something so remarkably human as love.
So, if you’re looking for a good comfort read, or one that you know might coax a tear or two, I’d urge you to give “The Song of Achilles” a try. Despite the fact that it’s outside my usual wheelhouse, I would read this again — in fact, I look forward to reading it again, if only to experience the effortless ways Miller forges something at once strong and fragile and forces your heart to swell alongside it, all the while knowing what’s coming.
This book allows tragedy to sit beside you, patient, making you hold your breath as if it will change what’s already been written, though you know that’s not the case.
Sarah is the Arts & Culture Editor and a writer for the Seattle Collegian, as well as a student of Seattle Central College, and intends to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing once finished with her BA. She has a deep fascination, bordering on obsession, with all the many things that make us human and the conditions and complexities therein, and tends to lean into these in her writing. When not buried in text or staring at the blinding light of a word processor, Sarah is enjoying films, books, and video games, as well as exploring the beauty that Washington has to offer.
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