Destiny, Romance, and Hubris in the Age of Gods and Heroes
We all yearn for immortality. For our names to be etched in the annals of history, forever remembered by the world.
Some of us toil tirelessly towards this goal, while others seem to possess an effortless magnetism. However, the manner in which we pursue this can determine whether we are remembered fondly or with caution. And despite our best intentions, we often find ourselves at odds with the perceptions of others.
In The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, we are introduced to Achilles — a demigod whose very existence guarantees him immortality. Born of a goddess, and raised by a king, he is destined for greatness, fated to be remembered as a hero of legends.
But what does a demigod desire when his fate promises him songs of heroism and valour? Does he strive for more? Or is the mere act of existing enough for him?
Through the eyes of Patroclus — a mortal man who only wishes to be seen as worthy — we witness the tumultuous journey of Achilles as he grapples with destiny, greed, war, and most of all, a love that even death cannot sunder.
To Become Philtatos to A Demigod
The story is told from the perspective of Patroclus, a Greek prince who comes from a small yet proud kingdom. The first chapters of the book are focused on him being raised by a stern father who sees his being slight and timid as irredeemable flaws. His life in their palace was no doubt nothing less than cruel and cold.
Moreso when they hosted the games and a young Achilles made a resounding debut. “That is what a son should be”, King Menoitius tells a young Patroclus as his hands empties of the garland given to the champion of the games.
As a drastic effort to raise their stature, the king forces Patroclus to present himself as a suitor to Helen. And although admirable that he was able to stand among other kings and princes of their land, it obviously didn't go Menoitius' way.
Being shunned in his own household does something to a boy who really didn't do anything wrong. Only that he was not the ideal son his father was looking for, born from a mother who was equally despised. He becomes desperate to please and will allow himself to be manipulated if it means the other person won't get angry with them or won't see them as useless.
For most of his introduction, Patroclus was doing things Menoitius was making him do — drills, lessons, travelling far for a marriage that won't happen. And I feel like it's implied that Patroclus understands what he's being subjected to, but that he allows it because it's what would please his father.
But when you're rejected on all fronts even when you're evidently trying your best, that also affects how you behave and how you react to stimuli. And this is the kind of mindset he brings to the Kingdom of Phthia, when he's exiled after accidentally killing a noble boy who tried to take his things from him.
Largely ignored by the other exiled kids being fostered there, he soon becomes a companion to King Peleus' son, Achilles, who is also the child of the goddess Thetis, and is destined to be the greatest hero of his time.
However, their relationship started with Patroclus harbouring deep envy for Achilles. The words of his father haunted him even as the images of the boy he killed flooded his mind. Who wouldn't be frustrated at who is essentially the poster boy for the perfect prince? “That is what a son should be."
With hidden spunk from Patroclus and a curious interest from Achilles, they became almost joined at the hip, only separating when Achilles is training or out speaking with his mother. But I would like to note that what really broke the ice was the scene where Achilles asked Patroclus for his assistance as he practised juggling. An amusing and confusing time for Patroclus, but he welcomed the experience for the better.
Apart from being our narrator, I thought it important that the story was pushing for Patroclus' mundanity mostly because we realise later on that he's really far from ordinary. What he is is not the shadow of Achilles, but a refraction of his light.
Through reading Patroclus' perspective, we have a better view of how larger than life Achilles is. His skills are beyond what any man can do, his status as a demigod makes him even more exceptional, and his personality has a quality that tells you he and other mortals don't experience life the same way.
Patroclus, on the other hand, is skilled in his own way. He's observant, and I think it's implied that he's also a fast learner when he wants what he's studying. Take for instance his interest in medicine and surgery during their time with Chiron. And on top of all that, he is more or less able to handle being with someone like Achilles. He's smitten with him, but he's not a bystander in their relationship, he will argue if he needs to, especially if a logical conversation can't be had.
As their relationship grows, from close friends to lovers, Achilles' destiny becomes a wedge not between them, but for any peace and happiness they have and will experience together. And while Patroclus sometimes falls back to the trauma of being useless and a liability, his growth and confidence in his new-found skills slowly overshadows this and gives both of them the push to face anything that would risk their relationship.
Where Mortal Achilles Ends…
Some of the scenes that really resonated with me were ones where prophecies were being shared. Particularly, the one that involved Achilles' mortality, mostly because of his reactions to it.
For someone who was raised to know that he is different and above all others, it is humbling to watch him sort of go towards bargaining, to find ways to steal time from the Fates. Something Patroclus was also actively doing, but how interesting it is to see his observation of these scenes. To describe it as such a mortal thing to do even by a demigod.
More than just the fear of death, of course, is also the fear of losing his godhead. What really pushed him to go to Troy isn't just the temptation to be a part of the greatest campaign in history, but that whatever in his blood has made him naturally skilled in combat will diminish, unused.
They are forced to confront the harsh reality that even demigods are not immune to the ravages of time and fate. And as the Greeks await his answer, Achilles and Patroclus are left to wonder — what is the true meaning of immortality? Is it to be remembered forever in songs and stories? Or is it enough that they exist together, demigod or not?
And so this is where destiny's weaving becomes quick and unchanging. It has secured Achilles’ role in the war, but also has denied him certain things, the most important of which is to spend as much of his time — life — with Patroclus.
Patroclus, too, even in the midst of war and people dying because of Achilles' absence, saw it as a blessing.
…And Aristos Achaion Begins
The quote above was spoken by Odysseus to talk about Achilles' nature and how you can't just reshape that, especially when it hasn't been used in its highest potential.
Personally, I keep coming back to this whenever Achilles loses himself in his role as Aristos Achaion.
Often I marvel at action scenes with fighters whose minds are sharp as their limbs are nimble and think that that must have instilled some level of fear to others. And I imagine the same thing with Achilles. It's not explicitly described in this book, but going from the sentiments of the people around them, especially Patroclus who is close to him in the battlefield, he must be breathtaking to watch.
However, what this also does is build a level of arrogance to him that is truly well-earned, but it forgets that there are other players in this campaign who are also as ambitious in immortalising their name and a few who have higher stakes in the game.
This puts them in a dangerous position in which cunning is the better weapon than a sword or a spear. As Achilles continues being victim to his hubris, not even Patroclus' pleas takes him out of it, to his detriment.
To Root Out Hubris, To Be Filled With Grief
When Achilles forgot his arrogance but stumbled onto rage and grief, it was because too soon Patroclus was taken from him. And the prophecy about losing the best of the Myrmidons started to ring true.
Reading the last chapters, it's hard not to grieve with Achilles. Not because we're so immersed in Patroclus' perspective and sentiments and love for this person, but because the exiled prince, in the face of death, was thinking of someone else. Was working towards furthering Achilles' campaign to be the hero everyone remembers.
And yet here we end the story where Patroclus has made a ripple of his own just by being kind.
Thetis, too, who was antagonistic to Patroclus and who triggered most of his insecurities, only sought to protect her son and his legacy. I empathised with her because of her experience with Peleus, and more so after knowing she will continue to live while her son is destined to die young. But I felt relief, because it was her who etched his name right next to Achilles' tombstone so that they may reach each other finally in death.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a compelling relationship study between Achilles and Patroclus in the age of heroes and gods. It's about love, yes, but there's a lot of introspection that happens in the narrative that it's difficult not to look into your own self and reflect with them. Am I living my genuine self or am I burdening myself with legacies and being remembered?