The Song of Achilles is a book that doesn’t so much belong to Achilles himself as to his best friend and chosen companion, Patroclus. It tells the story of Patroclus’ past with the great hero: from their tight friendship as young boys to their falling in love, culminating in the Trojan War which serves as a dramatic breakup for the two.
I first heard of this title from Tumblr users crying over it.
A tragic romance between two Greek men, they said. I checked the book’s tag on Tumblr and was pleasantly surprised to find that this opinion was shared by multiple persons on the site. When I coincidentally came to know that a hard copy of the book was in a friend’s possession, I borrowed it from her and began my read. The first question on my mind as I began was: Am I going to cry reading this?
As it turns out, I didn’t cry.
Let’s start from the beginning, when poor Patroclus is just beginning to discover himself and develop some personality as the awkward son of a little known king. Mocked and neglected at the hands of his father for being everything an alpha male warrior should not be (weak, clumsy, honest…the list goes on), Patroclus’ stay in his home is cut abruptly short when he accidentally murders some important kid. Thus begins his exile to the kingdom of Phthia, ruled by Achilles’ dad, where he gets to eyeball the budding young hero all day and try his shot at love. What an awful punishment for Patroclus.
My problem with the book lies in the elements that make up its narrative – the story development, the characters, and perhaps its entire setup.
As a novel set in ancient Greek times, I’m not reading The Song of Achilles expecting it to be very nice on its female characters. In fact, the plot demands them to be hurt, beaten, sacrificed and sometimes demonized (in the case of Thetis, Achilles’ mother) for the sake of moving the male characters along, allowing them to prove their bravery/worth/courage/whatnot. This can probably be overlooked as a necessary evil for the setting of the book. However, the female characters were the life of the cast. They were diverse, wise, and often offered multiple points of view on Patroclus as a developing young man. They provided insights into their personalities and his own, truly developing him as a character with all his positive and negative traits – something sadly unachieved whenever Patroclus interacts with Achilles himself.
On that note, I have to say: Achilles is horribly one-dimensional as a character.
Achilles is a Greek hero, flawed in that he is too strong but too prideful. Yet I feel no sympathy for him even when he loses what matters most and is overcome by grief. Achilles is too far removed from the narrative for me to extend empathy to him. He is revered by the other characters he interacts with, even Patroclus. The boys in his kingdom treat him as if he were a god. Achilles was the bright and handsome man who always got what he wanted. Patroclus himself, while his closest friend and lover, treats him similarly.
Patroclus sees Achilles’ flaws but bends to them. It is painfully clear when Patroclus interacts with the demigod that Patroclus’ personality revolves around Achilles, and how Achilles impacts the world around him with his choices. The book may be told in Patroclus’ voice, but what is the point of having Achilles’ story told from another person’s point of view, if Achilles alone IS the view? I never felt as if I learnt about Patroclus as anything more than a supporting figure whenever Achilles was in the picture.
It also never helps that the outcome of the Trojan War is already preordained. We know that Achilles’ pride will be his downfall. We know Patroclus dies first, and the events that lead up to that incident. The book may just as well have been titled The Trojan War: A Narration after some point, when the narrative moves away from the characters to the conflict over Helen of Troy. Where I expected to learn more about the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles (or why I was supposed to care about them), I was instead treated to pages of wartime drama. It felt as if human interaction took a break while the armies gathered themselves for a skirmish whose outcome I already knew. Given that the reader has foreknowledge of the end, the technicalities could have been traded for more human connections between the characters – something sadly lacking as the Trojan War sees Achilles’ transformation from an affable child to the more recognizable arrogant general of the original myth. He becomes a figure rather than a character, further stifling his own sore lack of personality.
The last point of annoyance for me regarding the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was how the relationship itself is framed within the story. See, I read my own fair share of Boys’ Love manga, and the relationship between the two boys starts and ends exactly like typical, angsty BL.
Patroclus is the bumbling outcast who strikes gold when prom king Achilles takes a sudden, unexpected interest in him. They grow increasingly attracted to each other. Patroclus is head over heels for this golden boy (and vice versa) until war hits the fan. Tragedy strikes and neither escapes with their lives – something foreshadowed when Achilles proclaims that he will be Greece’s first happy hero, effectively raising a million flags for his and Patroclus’ death. As if that weren’t obvious already. The whole “geek/jock” dynamic is just so painfully typical with its swoon-worthy levels of romance…or should I say gaynst?
However, what truly shines through in The Song of Achilles is Madeline Miller’s prose. Her style is soft, lyrical and bordering on purple. While some may find it flowery and tedious, I would not have been able to get through the book if not for her way with words. Perhaps she layers the paint on too thick, but this is an imagined Greece of the past, in a time of heroes and gods. This is a world imagined from a myth, one of many that have been passed down and retold, inspiring media up till this point in time. I say Miller chose her tone well in writing this book, constructing her Greece under a veil of romanticism, the same lenses through which we view this mythical past.
To be honest, I don’t know what to make of The Song of Achilles. It failed to reduce me to a sobbing wreck over its tragedy, simply because it failed to help me identify with either of them. I had more feelings for the book’s female supporting cast, who provided a much more compelling image of the two male protagonists than they did for each other. On the other hand, I thought the book was crafted decently and had no problems completing it, save the occasional fit of frustration at Achilles’ behavior. It would be accurate to conclude that I came expecting Feelings, and left generally disappointed.