Adapted from Goodreads: Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.
Achilles, “best of all the Greeks,” is everything Patroclus is not—strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
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Aren’t you glad you don’t live in ancient Greece? Aside from the obvious lack of amenities, you have those moody Greek gods and unhelpful prophecies to contend with. It’s been a while since my “Introduction to Greek Mythology” class in college and my reading of the Odyssey and the Illiad, but I have at least a rudimentary understanding of what was going on back then. What I like about these sagas is that you always have the conflict between free will and rule of the Gods. It certainly makes for some interesting stories—as can be seen by the countless reinterpretations in books, in movies, and on stage. Madeline Miller takes Patroclus, an exiled prince who becomes first playmate and then companion to Achilles, and has him retell Achilles’ involvement in the Trojan War. The result is a very well-written book with a touching love story at its heart.
The book is told from the point of view of Patroclus, who is unsure of himself and can’t understand why Achilles would pick him as a friend. I found him to be a very likeable narrator. And even though Patroclus certainly looks at Achilles through rose-colored glasses, the reader is not forced to do the same. I thought that was a strong point of the book. While I felt all the emotional uncertainty and exhilaration that comes with growing up and first love, I was still able to keep a certain sense of objectivity because I knew of Patroclus’ need of love and acceptance.
Another strong point is how effortlessly Miller has woven other stories of Greek mythology into this one. She has a wonderful way of mentioning events that take center stage in Homer’s poems without detracting from the story of Patroclus and Achilles. We get just enough background information about Thetis, Agamemnon, and Hector, for example, to better understand why they acted the way they did. I think that adds an extra layer to the book, not only because it becomes more believable (as a Classics teacher, Miller certainly knows what she’s talking about), but also because it makes the world the young men live in much more accessible.
My only complaint would be that I cannot fully understand how the Achilles as he is depicted in this story would refuse to fight when his fellow Greeks almost get overrun by the Trojans. Miller gives us a good explanation, but I did not find it completely convincing. Still, she makes more than up for it with the way she ends the story. Even though I knew how it would end, it made me cry just a little bit.
I have decided to read Euripides’ play “Iphigenie at Aulis” next (not to be confused with the play “Iphigenie at Tauris,” which is what I did when I first searched Amazon. Although I am not sure how I could confuse Goethe with Euripides…). Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenie and the effect it has on Achilles is a central point in Miller’s book. I also want to read it as a nod to my wonderful high school drama teacher who spent many evenings enthusiastically dragging unappreciative teenagers to the theater. This book made me think of her.