Madeline Miller ‘The Song of Achilles’

The horse’s muscular legs ended in flesh, the equally muscular torso of a man. I stared — at that impossible suture of horse and human, where smooth skin became a gleaming coat.
Beside me Achilles bowed his head. ‘Master Centaur,’ he said. ‘I am sorry for the delay. I had to wait for my companion.’ He knelt, his clean tunic in the dusty earth. ‘Please accept my apologies I have long wished to be your student.’…
He regarded Achilles a moment. ‘You do not need to kneel to me Pelides. Though I appreciate the courtesy. And who is this companion that has kept us both waiting?’
Achilles turned back to me, and reached a hand down. Unsteadily I took it, and pulled myself up.
‘This is Patroclus’

In this, the Orange prize winner of 2012, Madeleine Miller, in her retelling of the life of Achilles, takes us back to the age of heroes and through the voice of Patroclus, re-centres the story of Achilles’ life firmly around his love for Patroclus. Before he is exiled from his father’s court, Patroclus, as a boy suitor, is present amongst all of the kings of Greece when Helen chooses and is given to Menelaus after Odysseus had engineered the oath of every man present to uphold Helens choice and to defend her husband against all who would take her from him. The founding oath of the Trojan war.

We follow the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles as children at king Peleus’s court, of their mutual attraction one for the other and of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a lesser of the lesser gods, a sea-nymph only, and her hatred of Patroclus. Their relationship is finally sealed when Achilles, as a young adolescent, is sent alone into the mountains to be trained by Chiron the centaur and Patroclus runs away from the court of king Peleus to join him as illustrated in the opening quote.

And so on to Troy, Patroclus leaves us in no doubt that Agamemnon’s true interest is rather in the fabled riches of Troy rather than his brother’s wife. As the boats approach the shore Patroclus describes to us Hector, seen in the distance and the first hints that the war might be more difficult than they had imagined:

His power came from his carriage, his perfectly squared shoulders, the straight line of his back arrowing up to heaven. This was no slouchy prince of wine halls and debauchery, as Easterners were said to be. This was a man who moved like the gods were watching; every gesture he made was upright and correct. There was no one else it could be but Hector.

This is however a book about the love of the two men, a normal thing amongst adolescents in Greece at the time, but not amongst warriors. Achilles, “Aristos Achaion”, the best warrior, a half god, could and did do as he pleased. Madeleine Miller, after Patroclus’ death, brings out Achilles’s despair as illustrated here when king Priam comes at night to request the return of Hector’s body:

Priam’s eyes find the other body, mine, lying on the bed. He hesitates a moment. ‘That is — your friend?’
‘Philtatos,’ Achilles says sharply. Most beloved. ‘Best of men, and slaughtered by your son.’
‘I am sorry for your loss,’ Priam says. ‘And sorry that it was my son who took him from you. Yet I beg you to have mercy. In grief men must help each other, though they are enemies…..
Priam’s voice is gentle. ‘It is right to seek peace for the dead. You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.’

A chance to catch up once again with the time of heroes and the love story of Achilles and Patroclus.

First Published in English as “The Song of Achilles” in 2011 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

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