BOOKS

Song of Achilles

Author: Madeline Miller

Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

One of the few books that I’ve ever read twice, and one that I read twice in short order, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles hits me in the sweet spot intersection of my love of classics, adventure, and beautifully-imagined writing. Said the by-no-means-modestly-gifted writer Donna Tartt: “[she] carries the true savagery and chill of antiquity.” Tartt’s is a wonderful summation and compliment to Ms. Miller. This is a beautiful book that captures the voice, and the mind of the ancients so perfectly that I felt like I was back in one of my Latin classes, chipping away at granite-hard sentences to discover the wit, barbarity, and glory of those days gone by.

The book centers on Patroclus, the friend (and lover) of Achilles, greatest of all Greeks. Patroclus sets up for us the life and fears of kingdoms within the Hellenic region. While we moderns see ancient Hellas as the cradle of our civilization, but a few centuries earlier it was a loose association of island warlords spoiling for an excuse to declare war on their neighbors. Patroclus, neither strong nor beautiful, but keenly observant helps us slide into the world of pre-Iliad Hellas. The exposition established Patroclus becomes disinherited and travels to the court of Achilles’ father.

And it’s most interesting that Patroclus, this dispossessed, unemotional reporter of the Hellenic gestalt becomes enamored of the beautiful, fleet-footed boy, Achilles. Presexual, his adoration of the half-god reads like poetry to Youth itself, or to a Mediterranean ideal captured in so many kylixes and statues. Patroclus doesn’t lust for Achilles, it’s more profound. He’s captivated by the cruel, ignorant arrogance by which those whom we love are oblivious to the utter desolation they leave in us.

And we see Achilles’ ignorance exist not only in his half-god acceptance of Patroclus’ devotion but also, in the same style, his arrogance and perfection of himself as the half-divine killing machine. The Greeks said every tragic character has a hamartia, the fatal flaw. Miller suggests, non-judgementally, that Achilles’ is his ignorance, his arrogance, his blind acceptance of his superiority and his worthiness of adoration. By doing this, we know Achilles reckoning will come. And when he realizes how much he took for granted, we know that it will manifest in a way that would turn god to devil, man to beast, arrogance to wrath.

But in the opening chapters, it is Patroclus’ voice in Miller’s words which gives us a counter-narrative versus Homer. Instead of Achilles merely as a grief-mad, gore-smeared, blasphemous specter of death on the plain of Illium, we see the hope, the perfection of divinity. To see feet so fleetly built for attacking, to see a spear twirled and hefted with lethal effortless accuracy, Patroclus gives us the humbling awe of beholding those possessed of the Muse: Callas singing, Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics, Bernini’s statues.

A homosexual romance blossoms in the book. Surely many will let their homophobia blind themselves to a wonderfully-written book for this fact. I have pity for such ignorance. It’s not worth my time to comment on the fluidity of sexuality, the richness of male-male friendship (up until about 1940 anyway), the outright misogyny that made an association with women only slightly more acceptable than associating with children or animals, etc. as being the factors of a deep and sexual male-male relationship.

But of course the romance of these two youthful friends is fated to end on the plains of Illium with the death of Patroclus, and our protagonists inevitably end up there. Achilles blossoms into the bloody warrior he was fated to be. Patroclus, ever faithful, battles, fights, and defends his friend and his reputation, his fama so that Achilles will never be merely a butcher, but will be a hero whose ferocity was bounded by his humanity.

Given the times, that was a tall order. Even in death, Patroclus seeks to preserve the beauty of Achilles from Hades, seeks to rig fate so that Achilles might live, even as he dies. Even as he sees his own death coming, Patroclus begs his killer: don’t kill me, this sets your fate to meet Achilles’ spear.

But in the mythological age, no one avoids their fate.

And perhaps this is where Miller makes a most vital addition to the epic commentaries: by seeing Patroclus’ love and Achilles’ blind, if not arrogant, sponging of it, we understand the depth of Achilles grief and ire when the curtain is pulled back on the beginning of The Iliad. Having lost Patroclus and having taken Patroclus for granted amid his own egotistical and childish spat with Agamemnon, we see that Achilles’ reckoning with his hamartia will manifest is a boundless wrath. Hungry for death to rejoin him to Patroclus he fights flawlessly with nothing in reserve, to the utter ruin of Troy.

Only by such profound love does Achilles become the profoundly-gutted warrior of the Argive cause. Miller’s tale makes all the more tender Homer’s final council between King Priam of Troy and Achilles where, in the midst of war, they realize that ire hollows and forgiveness grants peace. Achilles’ grief lets him return Hector’s body to Priam and Achilles realizes blood cannot buy back blood from Hades.

It’s a supremely beautiful, barbaric book full of profoundly empathetic characterization, beauty, and timeless lessons.

Some of my notes below capture the richness of Miller’s writing, but it’s truly a wonderful book to read.

{
  "title": "Song of Achilles",
  "author": "Madeline Miller",
  "highlightCount": 65,
  "noteCount": 2,
  "annotations": [
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": 1,
      "highlight": "This is how they knew she was quite stupid. Brides did not smile."
    },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location": 7,
      "highlight": "There was violence in that room, with so many princes and heroes and kings competing for a single prize, but we knew how to ape civilization"
    },


{
  "type": "Highlight",
    "location":12,
    "highlight": "\"Before she chooses, every man here must swear an oath: to uphold Helen's choice, and to defend her husband against all who would take her from him.\""
},

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":13,
      "highlight": "Already Odysseus had shown himself too clever by half. Our ragged alliances prevailed only when no man was allowed to be too much more powerful than another. Around the room, I saw smirks and satisfaction among the kings; he would not be allowed to escape his own noose."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":17,
      "highlight": " He didn't bother to threaten me, yet. I hated him for it. I should be worth threatening."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":17,
      "highlight": "I snapped like the dogs who fight for our table scraps."
    },

    {
      "type": "Note",
      "location": 18,
      "highlight": "[Nobles] might permit a king to burn the fields or rape their daughters, as long as payments was made. But you did not touch a man's sons",
      "annotation": "sets up the stakes for Priam and the scope of desolation after the slaughter of his children"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":18,
      "highlight": "We all knew the rules; we clung to them to avoid the anarchy that was always a hairsbreadth away. Blood feud."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":18,
      "highlight": "[My father] would not risk losing it over such a son as me, when heirs and the wombs that bore them were so easy to come by."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":19,
      "highlight": "Peleus, was one of those men whom the gods love: not divine himself, but clever, brave, handsome and excelling all his peers in piety."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":19,
      "highlight": " Divine blood purified our muddy race, bred heroes from dust and clay."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":19,
      "highlight": "But like all the gods' gifts, there was an edge to it; the goddess herself was unwilling."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":19,
      "highlight": "And though beaks and claws and teeth and coils and stinging tails would flay him, still Peleus must not let her go."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":19,
      "highlight": "The blood from the wounds she had given him mixed with the smears of lost maidenhead on her thighs. Her resistance mattered no longer: a deflowering was as binding as marriage vows."
    },
    {
      "type": "Note",
      "location": 20,
      "highlight": "But for the sea-nymph Thetis nothing could ever eclipse the stain of his dirty, mortal mediocrity",
      "annotation": "set up her motivation for Achilles to rise to her station, that she might not lose him."
    },
    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":26,
      "highlight": "In the huge hall, his beauty shone like a flame, vital and bright, drawing my eye against my will. His mouth was a plump bow, his nose and aristocratic sorrow. When he was seated his limbs did not skew as mine did, but arranged themselves with perfect grace, as i for a sculptor. Perhaps most remarkable was his unself-consciousness. He did not preen or pout as other handsome children did. Indeed, he seemed utterly unaware of his effect on the boys around him."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":27,
      "highlight": "But he was craftier still. At least once a dinner he would turn and catch me before I could feign indifference."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":27,
      "highlight": "I was like a fish eyeing the hook."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":28,
      "highlight": "His presence was like a stone in my shoe, impossible to ignore."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":28,
      "highlight": "The fruit was perfectly ripe, the juice brimming. Without thinking, I brought the one he had thrown me to my lips. It burst of grainy sweetness filled my mouth; the skin was downy on my tongue. I had loved figs, once."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":34,
      "highlight": "His fingers touched the strings, and all my thoughts were displaced. The sound was pure and sweet as water, bright as lemons. It was like no music I had ever heard before. It had warmth as a fire does, a texture and weight like polished ivory. It buoyed and soothed at once."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":39,
      "highlight": "\"Patroclus.\" Achilles did not slur  my name, as people often did, running it together as if in a hurry to be rid of it. Instead he rang each syllable: Pa-tro-clus."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":40,
      "highlight": "The walls were painted with bright patterns that bled to ray as his torch passed them."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":42,
      "highlight": "He looked different in sleep, beautiful but cold as moonlight. I found myself wishing he would wake so that I might watch the life return."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":43,
      "highlight": "He was like a flame himself. He glittered, drew eyes. There was a glamour to him, even on waking, with his hair tousled and his face still muddled with sleep."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":44,
      "highlight": " He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":45,
      "highlight": "The shaft seemed to flow in his hands, the dark gray point flickered like a snake's tongue. His feet beat at the ground like a dancer, never still. I could not move, watching. I almost did not breath. His face was calm and blank, not tensed with effort. His movements were so precise I could almost see the men he fought, ten, twenty of them, advancing on all sides."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":46,
      "highlight": "This was more of the gods than I had ever seen in my life. He made it look beautiful, this sweating, hacking art of ours"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":46,
      "highlight": "How could any ordinary man take pride in his own skill when there was this in the world?"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":49,
      "highlight": " I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty? I twas enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulder as he pulled through the salt. It was enough."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":51,
      "highlight": " gods and mortals never mixed happily in our stories"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":53,
      "highlight": " She was taller than I was, taller than any woman I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back, and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as if it drank light from the moon. She was so close I could smell her, seawater laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe. I did not dare."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":55,
      "highlight": "In our stories these divinities had to work by wheedling and flattery, by favors won from stronger gods. They could not do much themselves. Except live, forever."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":63,
      "highlight": "I can smell him. The oils that the uses on his feet, pomegranate and sandalwood; the salt of clean sweat; the hyacinths we had walked through, their scent crushed against our ankles. Beneath it all is his own smell, the one I go to sleep with, the one I wake up to. I cannot describe it. It is sweet, but not just. It is  strong but not too strong. Something like almond, but that still is not right. Sometimes after we have wrestled, my own skin smells like it"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":63,
      "highlight": "I lean forward and our lips land clumsily on each other. They are like the fat bodies of bees, soft and round and giddy with pollen. I can taste his mouth - hot and sweet with honey from desert. My stomach trembles, and a warm drop of pleasure spreads beneath my skin. More."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":63,
      "highlight": "The strength of my desire, the speed with which if lowers, shocks me; I flinch and startle back form him."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":64,
      "highlight": " Dear gods, I think, let him not hate me. I should have known better than to call upon the gods."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":64,
      "highlight": " When I turned the corner onto the garden path, she was there, sharp and knife-bright."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":81,
      "highlight": "Do not let what you gained this day be so easily lost."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":84,
      "highlight": "There is no law that the gods must be fair, Achillles"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":84,
      "highlight": "And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":100,
      "highlight": "He went still as I took him in my hand, soft as the delicate velvet of petals"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":101,
      "highlight": "We separated, peeling away from each other, our faces puffy and half-bruised from kisses."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":102,
      "highlight": "I remembered in a rush the things I had said and done, the noises I had made. I feared that the spell was broken, that the light that crept through the cave's entrance would turn it all to stone"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":103,
      "highlight": " I savored the miracle of being able to watch him openly, to enjoy the play of dappled light on his limbs, the curving of his back s he dove beneath the water. Later, we lay on the riverbank, learning the lines of each other's bodies anew. This, and this and this. We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":105,
      "highlight": "They never let you be famous and happy."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":113,
      "highlight": "Wealth and reputation were the things our people had always killed for."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":122,
      "highlight": "She would feed him with the food of the gods and burn his human blood from his veins. She would shape him into a figure meant to be painted on vases, to be sung of in songs, to fight against Troy."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":135,
      "highlight": "His trust was part of him, as much as his hands or his miraculous feet. And despite my hurt, I would not wish to see it gone, to see him a uneasy and fearful as the rest of us, for any price"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":150,
      "highlight": "Agamemnon's army was rich with princely blood. It was said that he had done what no man before him could: united our fractious kingdoms with common cause."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":166,
      "highlight": "The gray-eyed maiden -- goddess of war and its arts. She was said to prize cleverness above all."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":167,
      "highlight": "I do not think I could bear it....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?"
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":167,
      "highlight": "He knew, but it was not enough. The sorrow was so large it threatened to tear through my skin. When he died, all thing swift and beautiful and bright would be buried with him I opened my mouth, but it was too late."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":178,
      "highlight": "If every soldier killed only those who'd personally offended him, Pelides, we'd have no wars at all....Though maybe it's not such a bad idea. In that world, perhaps I'd be Aristos Acahion, instead of you."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":207,
      "highlight": "He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":212,
      "highlight": "This was no slouchy prince of wine halls and debauchery, as Easterners were said to be. This was a man who moved like the gods were watching; every gesture he made was upright and correct. There was no one else it could be but Hector."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":221,
      "highlight": "I felt sorry for other kings who had to fight for their authority or wore it poorly, their gestures jagged and rough. With Achilles it was as graceful as a blessing, and the men lifted their faces to it, as they would to a priest."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":239,
      "highlight": "All i saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":240,
      "highlight": "He gloried in his own strength, like a racehorse too long penned, allowed at last to run. With a fevered impossible grace he fought off ten, fifteen, twenty-five men. This , at last, is what I can really do."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":260,
      "highlight": "For a generation, there would be no wars among us who had fought at Troy."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":266,
      "highlight": "We were sitting close to each other, heads together as if in conspiracy. I could smell the fruit she had eaten; I could smell the rose oils she pressed for the other girls, still staining her fingers. She was so dear to me, I thought."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":274,
      "highlight": "That night, slipping among us like a snake, quick and silent ands flickering, the plague began."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":282,
      "highlight": "Your words today have caused your own death, and the death of your men. I will fight for you no longer. Without me, your army will fail. Hector will grind you to bones and bloody dust, and I will watch it and laugh. You will come crying for mercy, but I will give none. They will all die, Agamemnon, for what you have done here."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":296,
      "highlight": "But I would have the memory be worthy of the man. I would have you be yourself, not some tyrant remembered for his cruelty."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":308,
      "highlight": "You have made a fair run of bocking fate's path. But you cannot do it forever. The gods will not let you..../The thread will run smooth, whether you choose it or not. I tell you as a friend, it is better to seek it on your own terms, to make it go at your pace, than theirs."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":363,
      "highlight": "But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while other fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another...Perhaps one day even i will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you."
    },

    {
      "type": "Highlight",
      "location":367,
      "highlight": "But the ache for him is stronger than my anger. I want to speak of something not dead or divine. I want him to live....But the memories well up like spring water, faster than I can hold them back. They do not come as words but like dreams, rising as scent from the rain-wet earth. This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward."
    }
  ]
}