A tale of love and loss set in the ages of Greek heroes, ‘The Song of Achilles’ is a mythological fiction novel penned by Madeleine Miller. The following piece is a review of this modern interpretation of ‘The Iliad’, examining the portrayal of queerness at its center through the author’s personal lens.
Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.Homer, The Iliad
A story about love, war, and everything that unravels in between, ‘The Song of Achilles’ is Madeleine Miller’s reimagination of the historic Trojan War, albeit from the perspective of an unnarrated character. Set in the age of heroes, we glide through the story of Patroclus, a young prince exiled by his father to the kingdom of Phthia, where he meets Achilles and embarks on a journey that is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
Awkward, and often inhibited, our main character Patroclus had always found himself not quite belonging anywhere in place or spirit. A sudden shift of events finds him in the Court of Peleus, Achilles’ home. Strong, handsome, and adored by everyone – Achilles is everything Patroclus was always expected to be. This marks the beginning of an ordinary friendship between the two that soon blossoms into something far more intense and enchanting, weaving us into a tale of love like no other. One can even go on to say that it’s the classic “socially awkward hero meets popular jock” trope, set in the time of legends.
An absolute page-turner and tear-jerker from the get-go, ‘The Song of Achilles’ is perhaps the most heartfelt and emotionally pungent book that I’ve read in a long time. The story from the start doesn’t stick to any traditional interpretation of ‘The Iliad’, exemplifying the great deeds of a conventional hero that one would probably treat as a fairy tale. Rather, through the eyes of Patroclus, Miller gives us the untold account of a character who was always veiled behind the shadows of great conquerors. It’s the extraordinary life story of an ordinary person. And in doing that, she gives birth to a tale that is so human and relatable in its essence, that it makes us shake to the core while bewitchingly asking for more.
As a person who identifies as Queer, reading ‘The Song of Achilles’ was like finding a mirror set amongst the landscapes of Greece. While being a story of love and loss, that is not all that the book encompasses. When I read about Patroclus describing his feelings on first realising that he was attracted to Achilles, I could echo the confusion that came with questioning his identity for the first time. His experiences of young love and the agony of not being good enough for someone else clearly spelled out the twisted emotions that I couldn’t find words to express before. It is then this tenderness and vulnerability of love portrayed by the author – so subtle in its narration, yet so powerful in its essence – that left me stung by a swarm of inexplicable emotions.
Perhaps the most redeeming factor of this book is that it doesn’t present itself as “a Queer love story”. Miller doesn’t place the protagonists’ Queerness as a distinction against prevailing heteronormativity – something that modern LGBTQIA+ centric romances are so fond of creating. We see no fetishization of the characters; they aren’t portrayed as alien species who’ve just discovered superhuman powers in the form of their sexuality, but just as two teenagers discovering the sweet reality of caring for each other. There is no need created for a grandiose “coming out” scene. And most of all, Achilles and Patroclus aren’t narrated to cater to the straight gaze. It is ironic that as a Queer individual, I could find more of myself between the lines of a mythological story than any modern Queer romances.
At its heart, the book is everything you want from a modern rendition of an age-old romance: raw, soft, melancholic. Reading lines like “He is half of my soul, as the poets say” and “our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other” filled me with the bittersweet hope that love always brings. Miller’s rhapsodic descriptions and poetic voice are distinctively a literary symphony in themself. To put it into metaphor, the book feels like the gentle warmth of sunlight on your back after a raging stormy day.
The biggest take back from the book for me was that it reignited the belief that love is indeed the most powerful force of nature, whether it’s on the battlefields of Ancient Greece or in 21st-century urban relationships. A tapestry of love that reeks of possibility and pain, ‘The Song of Achilles’ will be my foremost recommendation to everyone I ever meet. To all readers I’d say, quit romanticising ‘Call Me By Your Name’ as the pioneer of young Queer love narration and pick up ‘The Song of Achilles’. I’m sure Achilles would be glad to know that his love for Patroclus didn’t end up being remembered as his Achilles’ Heel, but as a force so powerful, it helped all of us Heal.
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