Cbr12bingo Gateway BINGO horizontal (Gateway to Shelfie)
I first read The Song of Achilles for CBR4, and for me, it is the gateway to a genre that I will call “reimagined classics” or perhaps “fanfic: classics edition.” This is the first book I can remember reading that is based on a classic story, in this case The Iliad, expanding on a part of it and telling it from the perspective of a minor character. Re-imagined classics allow authors to go into more detail on aspects of culture/history left out of the originals, as well as creatively imagining the lives of less important characters in the story. Miller’s Circe is another great “reimagined classic,” as are Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung by Nina MacLaughlin, The Mere Wife (a reimagined Beowulf) by Maria Dhavana Headley, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which is on my TBR list. Emily Wilson’s pioneering translation of The Odyssey isn’t exactly a reimagined classic, but it is an innovative and pioneering translation of a classic and a nice companion to these novels.
I loved The Song of Achilles when I reviewed it for CBR4 and upon rereading it my feelings remain unchanged. I took three years of Latin in high school and taught Western Civilizations for many years, and I always loved reading about and teaching Classical Greece and Rome. I certainly remember reading about Achilles, but Patroclus, his friend/confidant didn’t get much attention in The Iliad. Patroclus serves as narrator of this tale, taking us from his childhood as the son of a minor king who ends up an exile, bound to Peleus, King of Phthia. Peleus’ son Achilles is everything Patroclus is not — handsome, athletic, beloved by the other young men bound to Peleus, and the son of sea nymph Thetis, which makes him semi-divine. Achilles’ attentions to Patroclus strike many, including Patroclus, as surprising, but the two boys become close friends. One person who actively opposes this friendship is Achilles’ mother Thetis; she hates mortals, including her husband Peleus — whose attentions were forced upon her with the gods’ assent — and Patroclus. As far as Thetis is concerned, Patroclus is not good enough for her son, and she works to keep the two boys apart. Yet, they are determined to be together and as teens they are trained by Chiron the centaur for the life ahead of them. Achilles is fated to be the greatest warrior and best of the Greeks, aristos achaion. Patroclus is his therapon, his trusted advisor, but also his lover.
The Song of Achilles is a love story set against the backdrop of war and the inevitability of Achilles’ death, which has been foretold. The great love between Patroclus and Achilles is not only beautifully shown as it unfolds, but it also serves to make sense of both men’s actions during the course of the Trojan War. In my previous review, I addressed the matter of homosexuality and Greek culture, so I will not rehash that here. Rather, I would like to focus on some of the other characters in this story who appear in the Iliad but are given much more depth and agency in The Song of Achilles: Thetis and Briseis. Thetis the sea-nymph has an active and troubling role in her son’s life. She is determined to ensure that Achilles is recognized for his merits and that nothing gets in the way of his ascent to greatness. Thetis lives in the ocean but can appear on land, and when she does so, it freaks everyone out. Her physical appearance is stunning: she is tall, dark haired and dark eyed, with skin that can shine bright white or turn green/gray. She scares the absolute shit out of human men, including kings and warriors like Odysseus, and her dislike for them is always on display. Her hatred is kind of understandable, given the brutal way in which Zeus handed her over to Peleus to be raped and given that she was denied the right to take her son under the sea to educate him herself. Her ambition on behalf of her son, though, is chilling. Her desire to rid him of obstacles, and she sees Patroclus as one, will lead to a division between her and Achilles.
Briseis is an enslaved Anatolian girl, a prize of war that Achilles claims at the urging of Patroclus; it doesn’t hurt that claiming her pisses of Achilles’ rival Agamemnon. Patroclus has a soft spot for the girls and women taken by the Greeks as prizes after raiding their town. His feelings toward women are different from pretty much every other male character in the story. For most of the Greek army, these women are prizes to be taken as slaves and/or concubines. Achilles has no feelings for them whatsoever — no pity and no sexual attraction. He claims many of them at Patroclus’ urging, and Patroclus then treats them with kindness and concern. He makes it clear that they are safe and he tries to teach them Greek and develop their skills so that they can be useful in the camp. Briseis, the first prize, becomes a friend to Patroclus, and she wishes to be more. She sees and understands the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, but she still hopes. The scenes between these two characters are an opportunity for Miller to show Patroclus as a young man growing in wisdom and humanity while Achilles’ hubris grows. This is key to understanding what happens later between Achilles and Agamemnon, as well as between Achilles and Patroclus, and it will make Achilles’ actions outside the Trojan walls all the more emotionally powerful. In Miller’s story, his humanity ultimately does come through along with his deep love for Patroclus.
If you enjoy non-traditional love stories, classics, and an opportunity to learn a bit more about those classics from a new perspective, I highly recommend The Song of Achilles and all of the other books mentioned above.