Looking at Achilles from the eyes of his companion, Patroclus

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Looking at Achilles from the eyes of his companion, Patroclus

Anantha reviews The song of Achilles, a novel by Madeline Miller.

Most of us who have read Homer’s Iliad hold Achilles very close to our hearts. We cannot get enough of the Greek killer weapon who took down Hector and opened up the gates of hope for the Greeks to claim victory over the Trojans. Unlike other Greeks, Achilles is an open book. He is neither wily like Odysseus nor cruel like Agamemnon. He is neither cunning like Diomedes nor crafty like Menelaus. Achilles knew only one thing – war! He does not understand complex emotions, it is either love or anger. An angel to his loved ones, a devil to the enemy armies.

American novelist Madeline Miller spins her web of magic with one of the most dazzling retellings of the Trojan war hero, told from the point of view of his sworn companion and his dearest friend, Patroclus.

A relook at the plot

Patroclus is an exiled prince from Opus who at an age of 9 is granted asylum by Peleus, the king of Phthia and father of Achilles. Achilles takes him in as his sworn companion and dear friend in childhood. As they grow up taking their lessons together, first in Phthia and later with the centaur Chiron, their friendship deepens and they become inseparable. They develop romantic feelings towards each other. This is strongly disapproved by Achilles’ mother Thetis, the sea Goddess. She tries everything possible to separate them, but nothing works much to her displeasure.

Then the fatal day comes when all the Greek heroes are called upon to fight for the pride of their motherland; A Trojan prince Paris has abducted a Spartan queen Helen. The Greeks have to avenge the insult and plunder Troy. The loots of Troy were theirs to cherish for the rest of their lives.

When Greece is abuzz preparing for war, Achilles is forced to hide because of a prophecy. The fates have prophesized that if he goes to war, he will be killed but the glory will be his to claim. On the other hand, if he does not, he will live a long life in oblivion. Thetis fears for his life and tries to hide Achilles, disguising him as a maiden on the island of Scyros. Witty Odysseus blows the cover and convinces Achilles, who is by now blinded with the idea of becoming one of the world’s greatest heroes even with his life at stake.

The myrmidons celebrate the arrival of their prince pompously which makes Agamemnon jealous. Achilles refuses to bow down to him, which irritates him even further. Achilles makes it clear that he will fight the war on his own terms and will not bend down to any other commander to the Greek army.

Patroclus dreads the prophecy and fears that he will lose Achilles. He prays desperately that Achilles should never encounter Hector, because once Hector falls, Achilles will be next. They hold on to each other every moment as if it is their last, not knowing what tomorrow might bring.

But as days pass by, months turn to years in the war, he finally lets go of his gripping fear and starts engaging himself in the expertise he specializes in -- medicine. They are fairly settled in their new routine amidst all chaos until one day Achilles claims a slave girl Briseis as a prize from his raids. Patroclus develops a steadfast friendship with her. When Agamemnon stakes her claim on her after his own slave girl is forcibly taken away from him, both the friends are outraged and the war turns upside down. This is the turning point of the Trojan war, when the blood bath begins.

Agamemnon refuses to give back Briseis, Achilles refuses to fight the war, Hector takes advantage and advances towards the Greek army lines. Greeks will be plundered and destroyed if Achilles does not enter the battlefield. Patroclus intervenes, leads the Greeks wearing Achilles’ armor. Hector kills Patroclus. Achilles is heartbroken. He weeps uncontrollably and vows to avenge him. He had never even dreamt in his whole life that he will have to live without Patroclus. Death is his to claim. That is what the fates had prophesized. Patroclus could never win anything against Achilles all his life. All of a sudden, how did his friend beat him in this final race of life and leave him bereft and heartbroken?

His anger has no bounds, he makes a truce with Agamemnon. Nothing matters to him anymore, not even his own life, not even if it means the downfall of Hector. Hector must die. He chases him, kills him and brutally drags the noble prince’s body tied to his chariot for everyone to witness.

He refuses to give back the body of Hector to the Trojans, till Priam knocks on his door in the wee hours of the night. Priam pleads with him and Achilles melts like wax under fire. He returns Hector’s body with all due honors.

But Apollo is not the God who forgives so easily. And not especially when it concerns the death of his favorite ward, Hector. He orders Paris to shoot at Achilles from the high walls of Troy and deflects the arrow towards his heel. The heel of Achilles, the only vulnerable part of his body.

The world sees the end of one of the greatest heroes who ever walked this Earth. Achilles,” Aristos Achaion”, the best of Greeks. The Earth, sky and the sea mourn the death of the great warrior. But even in his death, Achilles only wishes to be reunited with Patroclus. He commands Odysseus to mix his ashes with that of Patroclus.

But when Achilles’ funeral pyre burns high and his tomb is dug deep, men forget about his friend Patroclus. He was only a slave to Achilles, not a companion, they said. Patroclus does not get a tomb of his own. And so, he cannot join Achilles in the underworld. As Patroclus’ ghost desperately begs the Greek heroes to send him to his companion, no one heeds to his request.

It is finally left to Thetis to make the final call. Will she listen to her son’s heart and send Patroclus to him or still harp on her dislike towards Patroclus? Will she ever be willing to hear the song of Achilles, which Patroclus has to sing to her? His softer side, his mortal wounds, his boyish whims and fancies. Or will she keep marveling at the glory he brought to himself and her name, by dying in this brutal war? Will a mother’s heart melt or will the cruel sea Goddess still hold on to her grudges? This is the story’s main conflict.

Exploring the relationships between characters

The title of this book is befitting. It indeed feels like a song. It is written so beautifully that the pages just slip through your hand. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has been interpreted differently by various artists through the ages. They were called friends, brothers, companions, and lovers. Though Homer’s Iliad terms it as friendship, many artists and poets have long speculated them as lovers.

Madeline Miller explores their romance in great depth in this book. They seem to be like two bodies and one soul. They are inseparable from each other. Despite great efforts from Thetis to break their friendship, Patroclus follows Achilles wherever he goes. Their love and feelings towards each other are very aesthetically portrayed in the book.

The ancient Greek charm comes alive in the places where the two friends grow up and later travel. Their stay with the centaur Chiron on the foothills of Mount Pelion is so enchanting, the beautiful fig trees, the freezing lake, the goat milk and cheese they churn, the carefree days they spend under the shade of the trees, they are all very dreamy. The lovely serene beaches, the picturesque mountains, and the royal palaces are very beautifully described.

As Achilles lived a very short life, his life is more like an open book. There were very few women who cross his path. Deidamia bore his child, and Polyxena was sacrificed on the altar after his death. But the longest relationship he ever had was with Briseis, the priestess who was captured and enslaved by him before Agamemnon snatched her away. In Iliad, Achilles openly admits to Odysseus and Ajax how dear Briseis is to him. There are multiple references in which Briseis professes her feelings towards Achilles likewise. Hence it is clear from Iliad that they had mutual love and regard for each other.

So, this book initially did take me by surprise when the author hints that Achilles never thought of any other woman but Patroclus alone as his romantic partner. When Patroclus follows Achilles in pursuit of Scyros, he finds him dressed as a maiden in the women’s chambers, and the Scyros princess, Deidamia, pregnant with his child. Patroclus is angry and jealous; Achilles pleads innocence and says he was never interested in Deidamia. And to add more twist to the plot, Deidamia professes her interest in Patroclus instead.

Later, on the battlefield, when Achilles gets Briseis as his prize, Patroclus again insists that Achilles is not at all interested in her. Briseis likes Patroclus instead and wanted to have a child with him. Patroclus even dreams of the possibility of settling down with Briseis after the war, but that wish of his never comes true.

Initially, I did not like this deviation from Iliad. I felt bad that the very few relationships Achilles had should be taken away from him. But towards the end, Patroclus mentions that he hears a puzzled Thetis talking to an equally astounded Achilles, “The fates have prophesized that the best of men and the best of Myrmidons will die in two years of time. And Achilles will live to see this”.

It is only then that I figured out that the author is making subtle references about Patroclus’ personality to the reader. When Achilles is renowned since childhood for his fame and glory which he will attain in the future, Patroclus is an abandoned exiled prince who lived in the shadow of Achilles all his life. Though he holds Achilles dear to him more than his own, there must be have been some feeling of insecurity and jealousy towards the towering Achilles. And hence, as this book is the voice of Patroclus, it will have to naturally vent out what he saw and felt, and not what actually happened.

And then everything made sense. “He did not even look at Briseis”. “what hurt Deidamia the most is his indifference towards her”. “Briseis said that you are the best of the Myrmidons and the best of the warriors I knew”.

In Patroclus’ mind, somewhere, he must have fantasized that the victories of Achilles were his own. Achilles’ prizes were his. The world knows only the greatness of Achilles but undermines his. I could not help but marvel at the subtlety in which this insecurity of Patroclus is portrayed in the book. The truth comes in various shades and perspectives. And the author has painted these shades with vibrantly layered colors in this brilliant tapestry. As a reader, I enjoyed every bit of it. And by the time I closed the book mourning the death of Achilles and Patroclus, these words from the movie Troy rang in my ears:

"If they ever tell my story, let them say I walked with giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die.
Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, tamer of horses. Let them say, I lived in the time of Achilles."

Patroclus by Jacques-Louis David (1780)
Patroclus by Jacques-Louis David (1780)

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