The Song of Achilles
352 pages • Bloomsbury • April 12, 2012 [PB]
“I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me”
We all know, or we think we know, the story of Achilles and Patroclus; and so the physical consummation of their love, when it comes in Madeline Miller’s extraordinary version, shouldn’t surprise. Nevertheless, with all the skill of an ancient Homeric storyteller she keeps the reader in suspense, prolonging the exquisite agony of anticipation through their boyhood and adolescent years until it becomes almost unbearable, and the strain on the reader is almost as great as that on the two boys themselves. When the long-postponed and hoped-for moment arrives, just after Achilles’ sixteenth birthday, the release of tension is palpable. But one is also acutely aware that this is to be a fateful moment, and that the die, once cast, will irrevocably shape the rest of their lives as they are prepared for manhood in the mountain cave of their wise old teacher, the centaur Chiron.
In that ghastly 2004 film Troy (more Greek travesty than Greek tragedy) the shocking thing is that the gay relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is not merely glossed over, which would have been bad enough, but is entirely absent, which is unforgivable. Miller, to her credit, not only retains this central feature of the story, she actively celebrates it – indeed it is her theme, and one she rises to with aplomb. Like Achilles as portrayed in Troy by Brad Pitt, Miller’s hero is blond and athletic but her Patroclus, unlike the film’s Garrett Hedlund, is gauche, wiry and not especially good-looking. The important thing, that said, is that Miller’s Achilles adores Patroclus and, though in so many ways opposites, they make a perfect couple, bonded for life from early boyhood. Bonded, in fact, until, and beyond, death.
Again unlike the film, which completely excises the mythological aspects of Homer’s Iliad, thereby losing half the point of the story, Miller mercifully retains them in her retelling. As one might expect of an academic classicist, her gods, goddesses, nymphs and centaurs are all real entities, co-existing as naturally on the earthly plane alongside the human protagonists as in the heavenly with the deities. Both sides are bound together in an uneasy but mutually interdependent dualism. The death of the gods is nowhere on the horizon in this version.
As with the sensitive retelling of all familiar tales, knowing the end need not diminish one’s interest and enjoyment, in fact it is more likely to enhance it – there is always the hope that the known end might, this time, be different. In expert hands the story is cleverly retold – as here in the first person by Patroclus (and posthumously, as realisation dawns it must be, given the outcome) – in a way that does enhance it. Just as we watch productions of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet knowing that the eponymous characters are doomed from the start, still we go back to the classics time and again because we find in them something stirring, life-affirming and enhancing.
This is a consequence of that literary and dramatic device perfected by the ancient Greeks, and given the name by which it is still know today: κάθαρσις, catharsis. And Miller’s The Song of Achilles is undoubtedly cathartic, in the sense that one feels purged and cleansed by the heart-rending emotions aroused in the book’s closing sequence. Sad and fatalistic it certainly is, yet ultimately satisfying and strangely comforting.
Though both Achilles and Patroclus die (as they must) this is a profoundly uplifting re-telling of the ancient tale. Quite apart from all the heroic (but actually rather grubby and unedifying) deeds of war, this version is ultimately one of deep and abiding, indeed eternal, love – and what could be more uplifting than that?
The fact that, after so many thousand years, the story of Achilles and Patroclus, one of ‘Greek Love’, not only survives but actually outshines and transcends the Greek Heroism at the heart of Homer’s theme, is an encouraging one in a world apparently once again turning overtly hostile towards homosexual love. Madeline Miller is to be thanked for her timely reminder that such love is an essential and formative element of European culture – and for framing it so beautifully and compellingly.