The Song of Achilles is a historical fiction that features the retelling of the story of one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology: Achilles from the point of view of his most ardent admirer, Patroclus. If you’re familiar with Homer’s ‘Illiad’, you probably know of Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles- the prophesied warrior, best of the Greeks and a man who was idolized throughout his life. Patroclus- quite the opposite, an exile who was mostly deemed a coward because he abhorred the battlefield. There’s not much mythology tells us about Patroclus. I think the situation is so because he wasn’t a warrior, and lived in a society which then revolved around war, regarding any other qualities in a man insignificant. But Patroclus never wanted to be in the spotlight. We see how in the book too, he hardly draws any attention to himself.
I was skeptical about reading this book at first, having never been too fond of Achilles according to what I’d read about him. But Patroclus’ narration is such a refreshing perspective that it changed the way I saw Achilles, it even made me feel sorry for him. Mythology only saw Achilles as a fearless, skilled warrior and a ruthless savior. But Patroclus saw him as more than that. He knew Achilles before anyone cared about him. While most stories only talk about Achilles during the Trojan War, this book begins when he was still a child. When Patroclus was first exiled to Phthia, the kingdom of which Achilles was prince.
Patroclus loved him for many reasons. Achilles befriended him when nobody would, he always said what he meant. While others longed for that twisted game they called honour- he didn’t care about it. He pushed Patroclus to embrace himself for who he was. The book names countless other reasons as to why he stuck by him and they’ve been expressed almost poetically to the extent that I wanted to read them again and again. One of the biggest things I realized from reading this is that Patroclus shaped Achilles to be who he was during the Trojan War. It seemed like he was not only his confidante but conscience, shaping his actions and making him the hero everyone loved. Without Patroclus, Achilles would’ve been lost, and he was.
I was curious to see how the story would move along after Patroclus’ death. According to the Illiad, revenge for Patroclus’ death was the reason Achilles went on a killing spree and ultimately ended the Trojan War. The last few chapters of the book are heartbreaking, when Patroclus watches Achilles as a spirit, begging him to stop. The Illiad’s focus on the Trojan War was to show the loss, grief, and suffering war causes. The Song of Achilles also highlights the same because the Trojan War changed Achilles and Patroclus’ lives. The two were unwilling to go in the first place.
After I read this, I wondered why classics like the Illiad and stories of heroes like Achilles and the world he lived in, are still relevant today? But that could be asked of any classic or epic. Maybe it’s because they gave rise to ideas which we continue to value today, or love stories and figures we can still idolize. For instance, Patroclus’ longing to fit in, how the Greeks would do anything to maintain their honour and pride, their belief in togetherness and numbers, wars over differences. I can’t figure out if that’s the world refusing to learn from history or just the way it’s meant to be.
Final thoughts~ I love that the author sheds light on storylines and characters which are mostly ignored in the classics. They add a new perspective instead of the monotonous ones. Instead of descriptions of the battlefield and bloodshed we get to read about the atmosphere on the sidelines, where wives and workers anxiously waited for the war to end. I strongly suggest this book even if you’re unfamiliar with Greek mythology because the author provides sufficient background.
“Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another. We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?”
-Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles.
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