I knew how this was going to end – of course I did – and yet I went willingly with Patroclus and Achilles towards their doom and my ugly crying. I may have mentioned in earlier reviews that I have trouble slowing down and savoring books, but I was in luck with this gorgeous book because my child and husband were camping and canoeing in the Boundary Waters, so I had a glorious week to nibble at this book and delight in turns of phrase, well-remembered characters who pop up, and a wonderfully paced story.
The book introduces us to a gamut of characters early, when a very young Patroclus, much reviled by his father for his meekness and lack of martial prowess, is present when Helen is basically wed to the highest bidder – King Menelaus of Sparta, brother of King Agamemnon of Mycenae. At that event, Odysseus persuades all of the other suitors to support her choice, up and to swearing to come to the aid of her husband if anything should happen to her. Shortly after, Patroclus is exiled to the kingdom of Peleus where he meets Achilles, the golden child of Phthia, and son of the sea goddess Thetis. After some adjustment, Petroclus becomes Achilles’ boon companion and they play and tussle and talk; at this point, they are in their early teens, yet Achilles is already well aware of his destiny as the aristos achaion, or best of the Greeks (and this, when Greece as an organizing construct didn’t exist, rather people identified themselves by the small, typically warring, kingdoms they lived in).
We see the relationship developing from friendship to something much deeper; it is clear that Patroclus has a tremendous crush on Achilles, but also is aware of his status and looks, so he tries to keep it tamped down. One day it overflows, and the gorgeous, overwrought description of their kiss brought me back to being a teenager:
I lean forward and our lips land clumsily on each other. They are like the fat bodies of bees, soft and round and giddy with pollen. I can taste his mouth—hot and sweet with honey from dessert. My stomach trembles, and a warm drop of pleasure spreads beneath my skin.
And then Achilles is spirited away by his mother, who will always view Patroclus as a barrier to her son’s destiny. Patroclus is devastated and follows, which brings us to one of the most glorious parts of the book: Achilles and Patroclus train with Chiron the centaur – Achilles in the art of war and Patroclus in the art of healing. These are heady days full of exploration and sunshine and burgeoning love. Chiron is a gentle character who seems to be only the second person (besides Achilles) to really see Patroclus.
They are summoned back to Phthia because Helen has been abducted by Paris of Troy and the kings Menelaus and Agamemnon send runners throughout the Grecian states to remind the kings of their oath to support Menelaus; thus the Trojan War begins. Achilles gets to Troy with a very circuitous route and becomes the aristos achaion, a rallying point around which many of the soldiers from every kingdom unite. Odysseus warns Achilles that his obvious romantic relationship with Petroclus will affect his ability to lead his men:
‘Your honor could be darkened by it.’ ‘Then it is darkened.’ His jaw shot forward, stubborn. ‘They are fools if they let my glory rise or fall on this.’ ‘But Odysseus—’ His eyes, green as spring leaves, met mine. ‘Patroclus. I have given enough to them. I will not give them this.’ After that, there was nothing more to say.
There is a lot of description of political squabbles, the interference of the gods as they take sides, and a lot of downtime, where Patroclus is gathering herbs or fishing or hanging out with Achilles and a group of women they save from ravishment. Throughout, the prophecy that Achilles would die at Troy once Hector died hangs over their heads. Achilles repeatedly notes that he has no personal problem with Hector, so doesn’t plan to kill him. Meanwhile, the Greeks know that Troy can’t fall until Hector does, and resentment starts to simmer. I hate to spoil a 3000 year old story, but ultimately, to save Achilles’ reputation when the Trojans overrun the Greek camp, Patroclus dons his armor and, well out of character, decides to try to breach the walls of Troy himself….and he dies. Achilles is so grief-stricken and full of rage that he kills Hector and, in a very unsporting manner, drags his body around and refuses to return it to his family. Finally, King Priam, Hector’s father, sneaks into Achilles’ camp to beg for his son’s body. They share their grief, and King Priam, noting the decomposing body of Patroclus in Achilles’ tent, asks, ‘That is—your friend?’ ‘Philtatos,’ Achilles says, sharply. Most beloved. Achilles recognizes that he has acted in a way that would have horrified his beloved and regains his humanity; he returns Hector’s body to his father and provides last rites to Patroclus and burns his body on a pyre. Ultimately, after killing many of the greatest heroes among the Trojan allies, Achilles is killed by Paris, who shoots an arrow through his back.
Achilles asks for his ashes to be mixed with Patroclus and that they be entombed together. the Greeks build a huge tomb on the shores of Troy for him, while Patroclus is basically neglected, and so his soul wanders the shoreline by the tomb, unable to join his beloved in the underworld. Eventually, Thetis, who also cannot visit the underworld, approaches Patroclus’ spirit, and asks him to tell her of her son, since she really only knew him as a demigod and hero. The Song of Achilles is Patroclus’ love song to Achilles so his mother can know him as a man.
Really 4.5 stars. I loved this.