Our Buddy Read is a historical fiction about Achilles and the Trojan war: The Song of Achilles
A telling of the coming of age of Achilles and his companion/friend/lover Patroclus from their early teens through the Trojan war is this month's Buddy Read. We selected it from Amazon's "must read" list - a book we'd never heard of and knew nothing about.
The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Award: Orange Prize for Fiction winner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published 2011, 443 pages
I am not well versed in Greek mythology and never read the Iliad, which this story is based on. Therefore, I came to it with no expectations, but with a slight fear that the writing style would be too….formal or “olde”. That wasn’t the case; the book is very engaging and readable.
The strong thread through the whole story is the love and devotion between Achilles and Patroclus.
"We were like Gods, at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other."
They had to overcome those who disapproved, but thanks to Achilles’ power and standing, they met with no overt challenges. I constantly had to remind myself of their extreme youth; when they went to war they were only 17. Along the way you meet kings and Gods and Goddesses (Achilles is the son of a Goddess and mortal), and a wise centaur.
“Soon our conversations spilled out of the night's confinement. I surprised myself with how much there was to say, about everything, the beach and dinner and one boy or another. I stopped watching for ridicule, the scorpion's tail hidden in his words. 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?”
The last quarter of the book takes place during the Trojan War and Achilles was “the greatest warrior of all time”. There are some battle descriptions, but nothing very graphic – it’s still more about relationships and power.
“It was a strange war. No territory was gained, no prisoners were taken. It was for honor only, man against man. With time, a mutual rhythm emerged: we fought a civilized seven days out of ten, with time off for festivals and funerals. No raids, no surprise attacks. The leaders, once buoyant with hopes of swift victory, grew resigned to a lengthy engagement.”
I found the ending very satisfying but I won’t spoil it for those of you who are unfamiliar with the myth.
“The sound (a lyre) was pure and sweet as water, bright as lemons. It had warmth as a fire does, a texture and weight like polished ivory.”
This is an instantly very readable book written in almost a simple style, but with a very compelling story. The story’s main focus is the relationship between Achilles, the perfect son and perfect prince, and his friend and later companion, Patroclus.
The story really begins when Patroclus, at just 10 years old, is shamed and forced to leave his kingdom, and covers the period until the two princes reach the age of 18. They are at such young, tender ages while finding their own way in the world and discovering their feelings for each other, and going to war!
Patroclus says of Achilles: “When he smiled, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled like a leaf held to flame.”
The two princes are such a contrast in characters – Achilles is a strong warrior and leader, born to fight while Patroclus is timid and avoids fights. Mixed in are Achilles’ sea-nymph goddess mother, who plays a major role in the story, and a centaur mentor for the two interesting characters. If you like history, battles, or fantasy, you will likely enjoy this book.
photo via wikipedia