Most of us know at least the gist of the story of the Trojan war. But how much do we really know about the men and heroes who took part in it?
Madeline Miller, jus tas in Circe, gives here the voice to a side character, but one who is at the heart of the story, Patroclus. The man whose death drove Achilles mad. Patroclus tells us his story from the beginning, his beginning. An unloved, shy boy, banished from his family home for accidentally killing another boy.
Welcomed at the court of King Peleus, where a hot of other exiled boys found a home, Patroclus keeps to himself. Still, not reconciled with what he had done, Patroclus hides whenever he gets a chance and avoids the obligatory military training. Then one day a boy catches his eye, Peleus’ son, Achilles. Gradually the boys become inseparable.
Achilles was a son of Peleus, a mortal, and Thetis, a nereid. Zeus received a prophecy that Thetis’ son would become greater than his father, and having himself proven such a prophecy right, he decided to take precautions. With Poseidon, they agreed that Thetis should marry a mortal and selected Peleus. Theo only problem was that Thetis had no plans to obey. Then follow a story that feels like rape. Zeus and Poseidon advised Peleus to find Thetis when she is asleep, bind her to him and hold. Thetis in addition to being a nereid, or because of it, was also a shapeshifter. As she fought for her freedom she changed into fire, water, lion and serpent, yet Peleus held her. She then agreed to marry him, but in reality, she only bore him Achilles, and then returned to her father’s palaces, leaving the child with Peleus and rarely visiting him.
This part of the story in itself could warrant a more in-depth analysis. First supporting the rape culture, yet then subverting the social gender roles, by having mother leave her child to live the life she wants. Or maybe, she could only do it because she was a nereid, closer to gods than to humans, hence allowed things ordinary women were not? But I’ll leave this topic here, as it is explored by Miller herself in Circe.
Back to the story then. Thetis was less than thrilled by her son’s choice of companion. To separate the boys she forces Peleus to send Achilles to centaur Chiron for training. Unable to bear the separation, Patroclus follows. They spend a blissful year with Chiron in the mountains, where life is stripped back to its essentials and simplicity. Their relationship strengthens and develops into love.
And then the Trojan war starts and Thetis starts sharing prophecies about Achilles’ future as Aristos Achaion – the best of Greeks. We all know the rest
Miller gives us all the known facts, but she also weaves around them the fabric of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.
The was Patroclus describes Achilles’ transformation into Aristos Achaion is riveting. Hoe he gets drunk on the killing, fame and glory. Despite knowing he will pay for it with his life. How Patroclus stops recognizing the man he loves. Yet sill fight to regain and keep him. Both Patroclus and Thetis are desperate to save Achilles from himself, both care deeply for him and yet hate each other. As the story unveils and the inevitable happens Thetis refuses to have Achilles’ and Patroclus’ name inscribed together on their tomb, leaving Patroclus’ soul wandering the earth. Keeping their souls from meeting each other.
One may argue that Miller converted a war tale into a romance. A genre I dislike passionately, but she also turned it on its head. For our couple never lives happily ever after. Instead, she shows a maturing relationship with changes, disappointments and betrayals. Made only more intense by the limited time and struggle against the inevitable.
It is a very different retelling of the known story. A very moving, even heartbreaking one. I personally found Circe more relatable, but this is truly a beautiful story of doomed love. One that is worth fighting for even though it ends in eternal pain.
Miller has a gift of breathing new life into stories we take for granted. I will impatiently await her third book.