When I read Madeline Miller’s Circe, I was dumbfounded by its mythical beauty and the way it captured so many dark and uplifting emotions, and characterised gods that have been part of my imagination and literary pleasure since I can remember. Little did I know when I picked up The Song of Achilles, that I would once again be transported back to ancient times, to the sun-baked shores of Grecian isles, where the gods of old and the people who aroused their passions and ire dwelled – not only in a mystical way, but in a very real and human way.
This is the story of both Achilles – the demi-god and hero of the Greeks, who was the icon of the Greek forces who sailed to Troy to rescue Menelaus’s wife, Helen and remained for ten, long years – and the man he loved, Patroclus. This is a bold and sumptuous story, a love story that will make you thrill, ache and wish like hell, especially if you already know how it concludes, that Disney was telling it.
It’s from Patroclus’ point of view that Achilles’ story is revealed – from their meeting when Patroclus is exiled from his homeland and fostered by Achilles’s father, Peleus, to their final years outside the walls of Troy, when due to hubris and other factors, Achilles withdrew from the war. Achilles actions are always coloured by Patroclus’ deep and unshakeable feelings – but this is also something Patroclus is aware of and it’s in his elisions and silences, the between bits, that the reader can recognise and come to terms (like Patroclus) with Achilles’ flaws and all-too-human, for a demi-god’s – choices. We also meet other significant figures from Homer’s epic and myth – Thetis, Achilles’ goddess mother, Paris, Hector, the wily Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus and so many more – the heroes and the villains of our epic past.
This was a magnificent feat, a story that will linger in your heart and mind long after the last page. I only wish it had been around when I was studying and later teaching Iliad and the Odyssey. It is stunning and a real tribute to Homer, to humanity, to mythology, but above all, to love.