Looking for a quick and easy way to pass Latin without having to read The Iliad at all? If you are, don’t read Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles, with really only tells the parts of the story with Achilles in them. If you aren’t, but are interested in classical mythology and complex LGBT representation, definitely check it out.
The Song of Achilles follows The Iliad from the perspective of Patroclus, the Greek hero Achilles’ closest companion and, in this adaptation, romantic partner. Miller’s Patroclus is remarkably passive for a man born into classical Greek warrior culture, content for the most part to sit on the sidelines and tell Achilles’ story while he fights and gets the glory. Over the course of the book, though, he evolves from his partner’s helpless sidekick into his own person with a unique set of unbendable principles.
Patroclus’ story begins in the hall where Helen of Troy promised herself to Menelaus of Sparta, but he doesn’t meet Achilles until he’s ten, when he’s whisked away to Achilles’ father’s palace in exile for accidentally killing another boy. Where Patroclus is a failure of a child with a bad reputation, while Achilles is perfect; Patroclus resents him at first, but the two bond when Achilles covers for Patroclus after he skips military training. This begins a long and illustrious relationship which endures godly tantrums, separation, and a good chunk of the Trojan War.
When the two are young, Patroclus is almost entirely in Achilles’ thrall. He knows Achilles is arrogant and easily bored, and can see it in how he treats other people, including the wife his mother set him up with. Still, he makes no move to change Achilles’ behavior or leave him. He comes into his own only after he’s been dragged along with Achilles to Troy, the last place he’d ever go on his own, where Achilles’ fated death looms.
Patroclus has a deep-seated hatred of violence, so he’s not much use on the battlefield, but he finds other ways to make himself useful. He enlists Achilles’ help in rescuing some of the Trojan women kidnapped as war booty, including Briseis, who quickly becomes the other most important person in his life. He also uses his medical training to help the wounded soldiers as a doctor. Making friends and working for causes he believes in shows him that he can be something besides Achilles’ right hand. As Chiron told him earlier on, he doesn’t give things up as easily as he once did.
Achilles finally goes too far in his arrogance when he leaves the battlefield after King Agamemnon treats him with disrespect. As the best warrior in Greece, he deals his army a crushing blow by refusing to fight. Patroclus, ever the moral compass of the couple, steps up to the plate to fix the damage he’s allowed to happen. He ensures Briseis, the cause of the dispute, won’t be harmed; he patches up the soldiers and implores Achilles endlessly to go back to the war; and eventually, he fights to regain Achilles’ honor himself. He still loves Achilles too deeply to extricate himself from the relationship, but the sphere of things he cares about has expanded enormously.
The Song of Achilles is a beautiful retelling of The Iliad and an excellent, complex love story, but its greatest strength lies in its exploration of a character who exists in the original only to complement a stronger one. Sometimes Patroclus is, understandably, unlikable, but his story is fascinating and his struggle to assert his beliefs while in an all-consuming relationship feels very real. The style of the book was perfect for a modern adaptation of an ancient tale: the writing, action, and world-building are simple but evocative of the ancient setting. Although it’s not the best SparkNotes for Latin class, Miller’s novel is a great, highly recommended read.