After finishing Madeline Miller’s riveting new novel CIRCE, I promptly read her other, debut one THE SONG OF ACHILLES, first published in 2012. This story was a page-turner ’til the very end. I can’t ever remember growing so frequently verklempt while reading a tale of romance and intrigue as much as I did with this book. Two young men in love, the demigod warrior Achilles and the very human, tender-loving Patroclus, are the heart of the narrative in every sense of that word. These protagonists must negotiate a hostile world dominated by men thirsty for power, fortune, and glory no matter what the cost. This is effectively summed up in the Greeks brutishly going to war against Troy and its surrounding lands, realm of the Trojans, all instigated over the kidnapping of Helen, a Greek king’s wife, considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
Though initially a hard decision for him, it is the ultimate destiny of Achilles to choose immortality through the glory of conquest against Troy. Hence, it is his life mate Patroclus’ destiny to follow and support him into this violent way of life. Along the way, Patroclus becomes a healer to the Greek soldiers and an ever-grounding presence for the part-god Achilles. In short, Patroclus is the conscience of the story. The one who directly recognizes this in him, filling the equivalent of the crucial role of the chorus in every ancient Greek tragedy, is the rescued slave girl Briseis. Like us readers, Briseis loves Patroclus truly and deeply for the brave, unwavering caring person that he is. And through this understanding, we are reminded why the glamorous, larger-than-life Achilles keeps him by his side, with Briseis so nearby. Together, the two men and woman represent a full psyche: both divine and human.
Apparently, the renowned epic THE ILIAD, from which this book is based and carefully adhered to, intentionally portrayed the hero Achilles and his companion Patroclus as gay lovers, something which I had long read and heard about elsewhere. (And, yes, now I intend to read THE ILIAD forthwith.) I was heartened to see this Classics scholar go with this interpretation while filling in her often behind-the-scenes, first person (Patroclus’) narrative with beautiful, cleanly-written prose about two tragic male figures in ancient literature. Men as both young lovers and warriors make for a heady mixture. It is rare, I find, to come across compelling, believable romance on the written page, and a gay romance at that. Sexual tension and a range of emotion steadily unfolded via crisp, often poetic, and vivid descriptions. The author’s use of describing the feelings of her protagonists through referring to the natural surroundings in which they find themselves in creates an atmosphere of immediacy and relatability for the reader throughout. Such is the craft of a gifted storyteller.
My one critique of the book was how long Ms. Miller had Prince Achilles and the exiled (ex)Prince Patroclus– who meet each other at ten years of age and strike up a friendship in fairly short order– go before consummating their love. The author sets them up in close quarters and constant companionship a few years before puberty, yet they hold back until sixteen years of age, including with each one not clearly bothering to privately explore his own maturing, virile body. (Perhaps I missed some subtle hint or two in the writing that went right over my head?) Uh, yeah, right. This was one area in which I could not suspend my disbelief. However, the author is a woman and was not a parent, nor, undoubtedly even a close associate, of a male teenager when she wrote this story in her early and mid 30’s. I readily forgive her for not being fully inside the head and body of a pubescent male.
Ms. Miller’s inclusion of the foreboding sea nymph Thetis (Achilles’ mother) and Chiron, the wise centaur and teacher of many things, such as medicine, the arts, and hunting, renders just enough portrayal of the mythical and magical to keep the story moving along. Also, their presence enhances and validates the rare intensity and specialness of the bond between the two leading men, who remain very human throughout. Hence, the narrative is both colorful and relatable.
Madeline Miller’s ability to breathe fresh, contemporary-feeling life into such ancient, mythical characters leaves me eagerly wondering what she will write next.