“I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.
If I had had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.
As if he had heard me, he reached for my hand. I did not need to look; his fingers were etched into my memory, slender and petal-veined, strong and quick and never wrong.
“Patroclus,” he said. He was always better with words than I.”
― Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles
I just finished this mesmerizing book last week and I don’t even want to return it to the library. I don’t want to download a copy on my Kindle–I will go buy a physical copy of this book so that I can touch it whenever I wish. It’s THAT good. There’s action, lyrical language, adventure, exquisite characters, classical mythology, and a heartbreaking love story.
I’m not sure how easy it would be to get swept up in the story if you weren’t already familiar with the characters and the twists of The Iliad (Homer’s epic poem of the war between the Trojans and the Greeks). Part of the anguish for me was knowing what was going to happen in the end, but being completely absorbed in the inescapable trek towards the final fate of each character. Well, that’s a lot of 50 cent words for this–I knew everyone was going to die in the end. I remembered from lit classes who killed whom and why, so it wasn’t a suspenseful tale. Madeline Miller spins a story so rich that it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.
My six-year-old daughter saw the book in my purse the other day when I picked her up from school and asked about that thing on the cover. I told her that it was a soldier’s helmet from four thousand years ago. She wanted to know who was fighting back then, so as we drove to get her brother, I explained the basic arc of the story like this:
Patroclus and Achilles become friends as kids. They fall in love. Achilles is a great fighter, the best ever. He’s half god–his mother is a sea nymph who lives under the ocean. Patroclus is more gentle and shy; he likes being a doctor. A war starts because this queen, Helen, runs off to Troy with a prince who isn’t her husband and her husband gets mad and asks his brother to get all of the other kings to help him go steal her back. Achilles decides to go along because he wants everyone to know how good he is at fighting. Patroclus goes with Achilles because they don’t want to be apart. Achilles and the Greeks fight the Trojans for years and years and years. Then Achilles gets mad at the king because he insults him. Achilles stops fighting. The Greeks start to lose. Patroclus doesn’t like seeing his friends get hurt, so he begs Achilles to go back and win the war. Achilles won’t do it because he’s too proud. The Greeks are about to get wiped out. Patroclus comes up with a trick to get the Greeks fired up again–he dresses up in Achilles’ armor and helmet and leads the Greeks into battle. It works! The Greeks start beating the Trojans, but then the best Trojan of them all, Hector, throws a spear and kills Patroclus because he sees the armor and thinks that it’s Achilles…
…and this is the point where Vivi interrupts me and says, “Wait. I thought Patroclius is Achilleseses’ wife? Is he a boy?”
I parked in front of the day care and turned around to face her. “Patroclus is a boy. Well, a man by the time the war happens. He and Achilles love each other–they’re boys who love boys.”
“Oh. Can I see that book?”
“Sure.” I handed it back to her in its crinkly plastic library book cover. “I’m not sure you’re going to like it–there aren’t any pictures.”
She gave me a look. “I don’t need pictures anymore.”
Oh yeah, right. She opened the book to a page in the middle, stuck her finger in her mouth and set to reading. By the time I got back to the car with her brother, she peppered me with questions: Who is Apollo? What’s a plague? What’s a chariot? Who kills Achilles? Why? Does Patroclius become a ghost? Who wins the war? Are these people real? Where is this?
I answered her questions, every one. She was stumped by things like goddesses who live under the sea and prophecies that come true, but not the least bit surprised that Achilleses and Patroclius were boys who love boys. I am so overwhelmed with gladness that she is growing up in THIS world. “If I had had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.”