Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
by Channler Twyman
Imma be real with you chief, I live for that Gay Shit™. If it exists, I have probably read or seen it. This includes but is not limited to: Fanfic, Yaoi, Boys Love, all the LGBT movies on Netflix, and of course loads of queer literature. I preface my review with these intimate details of my life to inform our readers that I know a well-written queer love story when I read one, and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is one of the best to ever do it.
As implied by the title, the novel discusses the details of The Iliad, more specifically, the story of Achilles and his relationship with Patroclus. In case I didn’t make it clear in my introduction, they become lovers. I’m not just talking cute young adult angst here either. I’m talking about a love that makes the Gods stir. Literally. Patroclus narrates this version of the Greek epic, and the story begins during Patroclus’ childhood, to his exile where he meets Achilles, and all the way up until they both meet their tragic fates willed by destiny.
What makes this story so intoxicating, however, is not solely Achilles’ feats or even entertaining the idea that one of Western literature’s most prominent characters could be queer (even though there is a decent amount of evidence proving so), but the fact that, at the core of this narrative is what it means to truly love someone. Yes, this story is about Achilles, but it is Patroclus’ account of his relationship with the Grecian hero that truly takes precedence over the course of the novel.
Patroclus was born a prince and, for lack of a better word, he becomes a nobody after his exile in the beginning of the book. He’s introverted, shy, and awkward. All the other boys in King Peleus’ court don’t even want to associate with him, that is, until the crowned prince of Phthia, Achilles himself, takes a strong liking towards him and they inevitably fall in love. However, one thing that many romance novels tend to gloss over during their fancy romanticizations of what loving someone is like is that you have to put up with a whole bunch of bullshit to be with them.
Remember what I said, Patroclus is essentially a nobody who just happens to fall in love with one of the biggest “somebodies” to have ever existed and that somebody happens to fall in love with him. One of the great parts about this novel is that it really solidifies the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Patroclus doesn’t love Achilles just because he’s destined for greatness, or because he fell in love at first sight. They developed a relationship that took years of trust and commitment to be there for one another. So, all of Patroclus’ actions to remain with him are justifiable in the sense that Achilles is someone he has promised himself to because he genuinely loves him. When you love someone that authentically you would do anything in your power to support their dreams and ambitions even at the expense of your own.
Patroclus defies the will of the gods, traverses several nations by boat alone, fights in a war knowing full-well that he hates fighting, he even slits his own wrists. He does not perform any of these acts to prove his love for Achilles. He does them because he loves him and because his love for Achilles is so great, Patroclus subjects himself to humiliation, disrespect, heartache, and even embarrassment at times simply because he fell in love with Aristos Achaion, “best of the greeks”.
Miller does this love story well by not making Patroclus sound like a fool blinded by love. He knows exactly what he is getting himself into by continuing his relationship with Achilles, he knows what lies at the end of the road for him and Achilles early in the book, but he remains because it’s what his heart tells him to do. But just because Achilles is doomed to a tragic fate does not mean Patroclus lets him get away with betraying his trust or allows Achilles to succumb to his hubris. Patroclus not only loves Achilles, but he respects him a great deal as well. Anything that Achilles would do to make Patroclus respect him less, physically hurt him, and Patroclus does not let those actions slide.
One of my favorite moments in the book is towards the end when Achilles makes a decision that affects someone dear to Patroclus. Patroclus is so upset by this that he fantasizes killing himself and leaving his body in front of the tent he and Achilles share. He imagines that when Achilles returns, he will be forced to confront just how much he hurt Patroclus. Despite its intensity, this moment seemed so relatable to me—when someone you love hurts you, either intentionally or not, it hurts. There are so many other beautifully-written moments like this one sprinkled all throughout the narrative. Miller uses lyrical language and utilizes consistent imagery to help the reader stay grounded in the story.
Another aspect that I love about this book is that Miller frequently addresses the problems Achilles and Patroclus would have to endure as a same sex couple during this time in history. I feel like a writer who was unconcerned and uninformed with the way queer people have been treated over the course of centuries would have just allowed Patroclus’ and Achilles’ relationship to exist with no issue simply because it is a fictional universe. Miller, however, grounds this fictional wonderland with intense realism and situates it with factual and historical context. Yes, there are centaurs, and water nymphs, and sinister Gods, but this story isn’t about them. She makes an effort to dissect and examine the societal standards and system that threatened Patroclus’ and Achilles’ relationship.
I also think one of the greatest charms about this book is that you can tell Miller has such an intense love for Patroclus and that is represented through Achilles’ love for him. Patroclus is a nobody, and the book points that out several times throughout the novel commenting on how unremarkable Patroclus is and how he could become a stain on Achilles honor. However, Achilles never makes Patroclus feel unremarkable or any of the other negative things people constantly tell him. In fact, I think the message that resonated strongest with me is that no one becomes great on their own, no matter how naturally talented or brilliant they may be by themselves. Achilles would not have become a legend without Patroclus’ influence on his life, and likewise Patroclus could not have grown in the ways that he did without being inspired by Achilles. They made each other better people, or at least tried to. It is the people that support and love us that ultimately pushes us to become greater. Patroclus and Achilles had such high respect for each other, which fostered a healthy and loving relationship built off consent, trust, and of course, love.
Generally, most people interested in The Song of Achilles are familiar with Greek mythology and know how it ends before it even begins and Miller is quite aware of who her audience is. Yes, Miller is writing another retelling of the events of The Iliad but this story is not meant to be an epic. It’s about the struggle of two people who love each other trying desperately to make their relationship work in a world where its rules do not accommodate their queerness. I would recommend this to anyone for a multitude of reasons. My breath had not been taken away by a book in such a long while. Any lover of queer fiction, or classic literature can easily get swept up in this whirlwind romance that Madeline Miller has so graciously given the world.
— Channler Twyman is a Staff Writer from South Georgia. ICYMI: Last time on “I See You,” Channler wrote on the subject of self-care and how to honor yourself and your art. Read it here.