Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
First, you must understand that Louise Gluck’s “The Triumph of Achilles” has for a very long time been one of my favorite poems. I love it, fervently. Have done since that first read. The kind of deep emotion a poem like that provokes, it lingers. In my case, it’ll never be shaken, and I’m predisposed toward anything and everything that touches upon not Achilles or Patroclus, but Achilles and Patroclus. From the moment I knew of its release, I longed for Madeline Miller’s book, though I didn’t acquire it until the paperback came out, the cover’s golden helmet gleaming under the bookstore’s bright lights. Even then I left it unread. I’ve said it before: I know their end. I knew that the journey toward it would be sweet, though I couldn’t know then how sweetly Miller would deliver it. I knew there’d be pain, a pang in my heart as the moment drew near. And so I put off reading The Song of Achilles until I couldn’t.
Was it worth that pain, that pang? Yes. Unhesitatingly, yes.
In Miller’s hands, Patroclus’ narration is transporting in that everything he sees is as vibrantly visible to you as well: every scent he draws in on a breath is one you can smell too, and the heat of a fire or Achilles’ skin burns not just Patroclus but you also. Miller manages all of it with accessible metpahors, passages that catch you off guard with their simplicity and beauty, and a deceptively straightforward style of relating Patroclus’ experiences. Experiences that ran the gamut from his saddening childhood to being trained alongside Achilles by Chiron to landing on Troy’s shore. Coming to know Patroclus so intimately is a joy, and I held onto that joy, wrapped around me each moment he spent, laughing, at Achilles side, hoping that shining binding would act as a buffer or comfort at the end.
If I’m being vague about their ending, it’s deliberate, and I apologize for mentioning it – vaguely – several times now. It’s just…I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the story of Achilles, but am aware that that is not true for everyone. The tone I’ve used is telling enough; I’d be loath to outright spoil it. As for the success of that previously mentioned hope, the joy I took from getting to know Patroclus and, through him, Achilles, was something I clung to. It wasn’t enough, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Like Gluck’s poem before it, I love Miller’s The Song of Achilles, fervently. I will go back to this book, time and again, reading bits and pieces or all of it depending on the depth of my need for this story, these men.
Madeline Miller’s web site | If you are so inclined, buy the book: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository
Before I publish this post, I have to point out that Miller will next be taking on Galatea. Another of my favorite Greek myths.