Another volume in my Iliad exploration, I missed The Song of Achilles when it first came out in 2012, garnering superlatives and awards, so have come to it rather late. Miller’s book is not a retelling of the Iliad, although she does, of course, deal with its events in the course of the novel, but The Song of Achilles is more concerned with Achilles and his relationship with Patroclus, and fully illuminates the other man as a real person, albeit one who is always in the shadow of Achilles. The majority of the book tells of how Patroclus grew up, only son of a disappointed father, later exiled for inadvertently killing another boy, and fostered in the house of Peleus, Achilles’ father, and how he and Achilles grew to be close companions and lovers.
I don’t know what basis there is for the early scene in which nine-year old Patroclus, forced by his father to offer marriage to famously beautiful Helen, and the subsequent taking of an oath to aid her eventual husband should any man dare to steal her, but it sets up beautifully the later Trojan War, with most of the same men in attendance: older, if not always wiser. I particularly liked Miller’s portrayal of Odysseus in this scene, as well as later in the novel, and am encouraged to seek out Miller’s Circe to read as a companion to this.
Her Achilles, though, seen through Patroclus’ eyes, starts the novel with an undaunted and extremely sturdy self-confidence (Patroclus’s sheer ordinariness, and his diffidence, is very strongly contrasted) and (almost) ends it in stubborn arrogance. He’s not particularly easy to sympathise with or like. Conversely, Patroclus is just a bit too nice, and I was left wanting a bit more to him – he seemed a lot like a series of negatives – not musical, not confident, essentially an orphan, not a good fighter, not Achilles, in essence. Because he draws himself so negatively, you do wonder why Achilles is so drawn to him. I don’t want to spend all my review talking about the things which didn’t work for me, when so much of the book did: particularly how Miller brings the past, the war, the daily life, the languages, to life so well. Her Thetis (Achilles’ perpetually, it seems, angry sea-goddess mother) is a beautifully chilly character, although only ever seen through Patroclus’s eyes. I loved her horrible Agamemnon, so thoughtless, so arrogant, and the little snide asides Patroclus makes about his spear-throwing ability. Her portrayal of young Neoptolemus / Pyrrhus is shudder-inducing, the natural outcome of being raised by a goddess to be superhuman.
The book is compulsively readable: I tore through this in a couple of days. Coming out of it, I think Pat Barker did a better of job of illuminating Achilles in The Silence of the Girls (and definitely of Briseis), but The Song of Achilles makes a wonderful companion piece, shining a different light on the same men.