Are There Lesbians? No
It’s the story of the Iliad, and the youth of Achilles, if it was told as a romance from the perspective of Patroclus
I was very excited for this book. I’d heard so much about it I was thrilled to dive right on in. Only, it turned out to be a little less epic than I thought.
There is plenty of argument about whether or not cis women should be writing queer stories and I personally have some very strong opinions on the matter. However, I would also argue that Song of Achilles gets a free pass both because it was one of the first acclaimed novels to have a genuinely nice queer relationship, and also its a classical story that has been around for ages before Madeleine Miller decided to put pen to paper, let alone been born.
Having seen, and recoiled at Troy I had worried that Song of Achilles would try and do something similar, removing an aspect of the divine that is so important to the story of the Trojan War. I had practically grown up with this story, from the initial squabble over the golden apple to the flight of Aeneas I had read and eventually studied as much about the Homeric cycle as I could. So I was elated that Song of Achilles kept its gods and heroes and creatures real.
I was not elated at the novel’s treatment of Patroclus. While he did have his own character that stood up well against the mythic figure of Achilles, so much of it rang false to me. I liked that he showed an interest and proficiency in medicine over martial skills but frankly I think it’s stupid that Patroclus would have been so ignorant of how to fight, especially considering that he is actually thought to be Achilles at one point. There is a strong focus on the emotion of their relationship rather than the standards that it would have had in Ancient Greece. I don’t like how the erastes/eromenos relationship was portrayed, nor how it became simply ok for Patroclus to not be able to fight. As the older male, I find it unrealistic that Patroclus would have been not only terrible at, but also completely unable to fight. In this vein I also found Achilles fantastic skill at fighting a little over-emphasised. I can appreciate that his speed and grace were something god-given enough to earn him his epithet as “swift-footed,” but it would have been nice to see a slow growth into something superhuman, and to see the two matching up in combat together at least a little before Achilles came into his own. The real clincher for me was the painting of Sarpedon’s death as an accident, as well as Patroclus’ actual death. It is easy to look up in the Iliad, and the wise-ass who taunts Hector right before being stabbed would have been a truly great moment rather than having Patroclus being totally helpless after Apollo interferes in his aristeia. This is a couple that the Ancient Greeks looked up to as the perfect companions after all, because they fought side-by-side and had a strong emotional relationship. I have some seriously strong feelings about all this, but I am trying to remember that this novel is (obviously) not entirely based in history and therefore doesn’t have to be historically accurate. It would have been nice, however, to see Miller’s novel interact or respond to the absolute plethora of writing on the Achilles/Patroclus relationship.
Despite this, in a novel that has very few female characters to include, Miller truly makes the most of their potential. Thetis is suitably god-like, to the point of being delightfully dramatic and over-the-top. Truly I don’t think I have ever read a more delightfully extra character and I love it. I also ended up liking Briseis a surprising amount. I think I had half-expected her to be a bit of a nothing character despite her importance to the story, and fade in comparison to the boys, but she held her own and maintained interest.
Song of Achilles gave me so many emotions – from annoyance to love and back again. I wish I had read it sooner but found that it not only lived up to but exceeded the hype surrounding it. Miller’s writing is vivid and fantastic, I can’t wait to get into her newest book Circe. If it’s anything like Song of Achilles I know it will be well worth it.