Maybe because I grew up in Christian private school, or because I’m just oblivious, or because Hollywood has succeeded in shaping my view of classical literature, I did not know until reading this book that many scholars agree that Achilles and Patroclus were not friends, or cousins, or brothers-in-arms, but lovers. Ooh la la! In fact, most of the time I was reading this book, I thought that the author, Madeline Miller, had taken a modern artistic liberty that was an interesting spin on the source material that no one had really explored before. Researching further, I found that Achilles and Patroclus being in love was a very common and uncontroversial interpretation of The Iliad until (guess when?) the Christian Church came to power and endeavored to Christian-ify Greek mythology. Typical.
It’s hard for me to gauge how unusual it is that I was ignorant of this popular interpretation. Some book reviewers seem pretty scandalized, and refer to Miller’s embrace of a very old translation as “re-writing” a classic, but it’s also clear that many people prefer and defend the homoerotic reading, and it has even been a source of what I can only describe as fan fiction, for lack of a better term. (Incidentally, make sure your safe search is on if you Image Google “Achilles and Patroclus” unless you want to see a lot of perky penises, no judgement from me if you do.) It’s so popular that I’m a little surprised that I can’t find evidence of a campaign protesting the younger-cousin approach to their relationship that Troy presented.
Because thinking of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers is so much more epic and tragic and important and romantic, especially with the help of Madeline Miller’s lovely imagery.
The Song of Achilles is written from Patroclus’ point of view, starting from the first time he saw Achilles as a kid, through their childhood and friendship, the start of their egalitarian sexual relationship (in mythology Patroclus is older and more responsible than Achilles, but Miller ages him down a bit so they are the same age–surprisingly, many people age Patroclus down considerably and make him much younger and more vulnerable, which I find rather pervy), and then into the Trojan War. Skip the rest of this paragraph you didn’t read it in high school and didn’t see the movie and don’t want to be spoiled now. Achilles is famously given the choice between a long life of obscurity or a short life of glory, and goes to war with the knowledge that he will die, but only after the Trojan prince Hector dies. Achilles is the best warrior by far, and simply avoids Hector in battle, which draws the war out for ten years, which buys the lovers some time. A few plot twists lead to Achilles withdrawing from the war, Patroclus begging him to return, and, when he won’t, Patroclus convincing Achilles to let him fight instead, wearing Achilles’ armor. Hector kills Patroclus (with a little help from Apollo, who is a real dick in this story), and a broken-hearted Achilles chases down and kills Hector in revenge, knowing and not caring that it will precipitate his own death. So in case you’re wondering, the narration doesn’t stop with Patroclus’ death, even though Patroclus is the narrator. This is Greek mythology, with gods and magic and spirits and shit, so fortunately we can keep listening in even after someone dies.
The book is wonderful and achingly tragic. The language is poetic and vivid. I found myself thinking many times, “This part will look so cool in the movie,” even though no movie is in the works. Miller’s description of Thetis, Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, was especially intriguing, and very different from other interpretations I’ve seen, as Thetis is completely terrifying. Making Patroclus the narrator is brilliant, since he’s present for much of the action but usually not the center of it, and his relationship with Achilles is completely unique and gives the reader a kinder perspective of Achilles than we might otherwise develop. Patroclus’ descriptions of Achilles are lovely and at times rife with sexual tension. A few sex scenes are described, but things never get over-the-top porny, if you worry about that kind of thing (no judgement from me if you don’t, just trying to be informative). I was sad to see this book end, and real life seems a bit dull and non-magical by comparison.
The most incredible thing about this book, for me, is who recommended it–my Great Aunt Judy. Not because she isn’t totally kick-ass (she is), or doesn’t have impeccable literary taste (she does), but she’s the sister of my homophobic granddad, a man who has mentioned the Bible to me exactly once in my whole life, and did so to justify his opposition to marriage equality and to suggest that I’m intolerant for not tolerating his religious intolerance (a religion which, I remind you, he had never mentioned before). I know siblings are often very different, and thank goodness for that, but damn. Anyway, my aunt is awesome and smarter than all of us (I think she still works at the Pentagon), and many of our conversations go like this: Have you read This Book by This Author? No. You must! And then she sends me an email with the subject line “books we discussed” so I can keep track. This particular book was only different because she said, “You must–as long as you don’t mind homoerotic stories.”
How often to you hear a recommendation like that from a great aunt? Everybody should have one like mine. And she knits.