Desert Isle Keeper
The Song of Achilles
In her Orange Prize for Fiction (2012) winning The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller presents Homer’s Illiad from a slightly different perspective, that of Patroclus, whose name would be forgotten in history except for his connection with the great hero and demi-god Achilles, and the Trojan war.
There are reviews, amongst the loud clamour of praise, which suggest this story is ‘teenage’ and ‘hormonal’ in the way it is written, and it is. I don’t see this as a negative thing necessarily. These boys – these two – demi-god and prince are teenagers in love. The true Illiad – or rather many of its translations – is beautiful, but is not interpreted as the writings of teenage boys in love. The Illiad is a bible for Greek scholars and Classicists, as is the ‘sequel’ The Odyssey. They were written by Homer, who may be one writer in an age of oral histories, or whose name translates as ‘men’, the ones who told these stories down the years. The story of Patroclus and Achilles is a small part of a glorious whole. It is, however a contentious part.
Scholars rarely agree with each other over ancient texts – I think it’s an unwritten academic rule – and the story of Achilles and Patroclus is no exception. Ancient Greek society was not against homosexuality per se, in fact, rich men often found richer older men to ‘mentor’ their sons until manhood, usually about sixteen, and these relationships were sometimes sexual. As girls were expected to remain virginal (as far as boys were concerned), on reaching puberty, boys would use male and female slaves for sex. However, the slaves were never ‘loved’ or treated as friends; rape was rife with no recourse, and young boys who were companions to rich men were not sexual partners after reaching manhood. These facts are important.
It seems strange to us now, but this was the way of Greek civilisation for hundreds of years. The reason that this particular relationship was deemed wrong in Greek eyes – and, I suggest, in many scholars’ eyes, is that it was love, it lasted beyond puberty, and thus was a true homosexual love affair. In addition, those orbiting around these youths would see the path laid out for the favoured hero and Prince – Achilles – as being sullied by the presence of Patroclus. The true homophobia in this interpretation of the story, comes from Achilles’ mother, the goddess, Thetis.
The Song of Achilles is romantic in every sense of the word and the teenage element is, I feel, apt for the narrator. The story is told through Patroclus’ eyes, even after his death in his early twenties. It starts from his childhood as the ‘failed’ Prince of an abusive, weak father. At nine years old he is sent to try and gain the hand of Helen in marriage. She, of course, marries Menelaus and becomes the excuse for the Trojan war. Patroclus is then banished by his father, after he accidentally kills a bully, to the court of Peleus, where Patroclus meets Achilles.
The novel is full of the Greek deities, heroes and mythological figures, but they are written in everyday situations and accepted as real. This is enjoyable and even more so if, like me, you lived for reading mythology, as a child. (I was a bit of a geek, I suppose.) There is gay sex, but as you will see it is poetic and heavily romantic in style,
Our mouths opened under each other, and the warmth of his sweetened throat poured into mine. I could not think, could not do anything but drink him in, each breath as it came, the soft movements of his lips. It was a miracle.
This was their first physical encounter, and it went on
I was trembling, afraid to put him to flight. I did not know what to do, what he would like. I kissed his chest, and tasted salt. He seemed to swell beneath my touch, to ripen.
This scene continues until they both climax – for the first time with someone else – and it is very fumbled with a lot of ‘trembling’, but they are fifteen and have no experience. The thoughts of the narrator are poetic and youthful, but his love and awe shine through. When Achilles merely speaks his name, Patroclus remarks to the reader,
‘He was always better with words than I.’
The Song of Achilles concerns the part of the Illiad that most affects these two players in the Trojan War. Fate decrees that they will both die young and will not return from the war but also blocks their attempts to avoid this. This includes Thetis stealing Achilles away, to hide him as a female dancer in a far off land. The war is futile, and like most wars, born of greed not romantic notions of kidnapped beauties, such as Helen of Troy. Achilles, knowing his life will most likely end in his twenties, goes to war because he wants the glory and immortality that is bestowed on dead heroes.
‘…I do not think I can bear it…’ he said, at last. His eyes closed, as if against the horrors. I knew he spoke not of his death but of the nightmare Odysseus had spun, the loss of his brilliance, the withering of his grace. I had seen the joy he took in his own skill, the roaring vitality that was always just beneath the surface. Who was he if not miraculous, and radiant? Who was he if not destined for fame? ‘I would not care,’ I said…’ Whatever you became…We would be together.’
This is the crux of their story. Even though they know that in all probability they will both die young, Achilles cannot face a normal life, one where he would grow old with the man he loves, whereas it’s all Patroclus truly wants. Patroclus tries to change Achilles’ fate and though most readers will already know how and what occurs – it remains heartbreaking.
I will admit the last sections of the book caused this reader to experience the whole gamut of emotions and I loved it. The end is not quite the end and the last chapter may be the most lump-in-throat of them all. What happens and who helps this loving couple I’ll leave for you to find out, but I’d advise having a box of tissues to hand throughout this epic novel.