The call of Greek mythology and their retellings is a hard call to resist.
The ancient mix of heady dramas, swashbuckling adventures, love and hatred, messy mortals, conniving gods, magical creatures and tragic, twisting fates is dangerously intoxicating. And the sheer wealth of literature, old and new, adapted from these tales means that a casual dip of a toe into these mythological waters can very easily turn into a deep dive.
This year, I’ve been caught up in one of these accidental deep dives and The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller was my latest myth-retelling read.
Narrated by Patroclus, the story follows him from his childhood as an awkward, exiled prince in Phthia, through his blossoming romance with Achilles, and then to the battlefields of Troy.
Miller’s writing is beautiful. It’s lyrical and dreamlike, even when mired in blood and gore. She balances the threads, twists and turns of the story in a way that feels effortless, just like in Circe (which I read and also loved last year).
“Thetis stood in the doorway, hot as a living flame. Her divinity swept over us all, singeing our eyes, blackening the broken edges of the door. I could feel it pulling at my bones, sucking at the blood in my veins as if it would drink me.”
Achilles wasn’t a character I was expecting to sympathise with but Miller captures, through Patroclus’ (admittedly rose-tinted) eyes, a tenderness in him that is initially strange but ultimately mesmerizing. Their relationship is hypnotic and hauntingly bittersweet from the start. I found myself hoping they would somehow sidestep the messy web of kings and honour and war, and sail off into the sunset, happily ever after.
“That night I lie in bed beside Achilles. His face is innocent, sleep-smoothed and sweetly boyish. I love to see it. This is his truest self, earnest and guileless, full of mischief, but without malice.”
But kings and honour and war come calling and there is no escape, no happily ever after.
The sunsoaked, rosy-fingered peace of the book’s first half gives way to a bloodsoaked, spear-punctured second half. Tension hangs heavy over the story, murmuring painfully away like brittle autumn leaves whipping in the wind, ready and waiting, waiting to fall.
Achilles knows his fate, has chosen it. Neither know Patroclus’ and it’s devastating to watch unfold.
“I lay back and tried not to think of the minutes passing. Just yesterday we had a wealth of them. Now each was a drop of heart’s lost blood… I rose and rubbed my limbs, slapped them awake, trying to ward off a rising hysteria. This is what it will be, every day, without him. I felt a wide-eyed tightness in my chest, like a scream. Every day, without him.”
By the end, I couldn’t put the book down. The pain was cruelly addictive, fresh and sharp despite being three thousand years in the making.
I didn’t want it to end.
“It is right to seek peace for the dead. You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.”
After The Song Of Achilles, I suspect it will be a long time before my reading heart finds peace again.