I’ve cried over three books in my lifetime.
1. I can’t actually remember the book. I remember just before the part that stirred tears, I was lying on my bed in the afternoon and humming to myself. My legs were cradled up, bent like a church spire and I think I was humming out of fear of what the next few pages held. There was definitely love lost.
2. Of Mice and Men, Summer of 2012. Unfortunately, I posted a selfie of these tears somewhere in the bowels of this blog (bu-dum-cha). I may have been alone in not seeing that ending coming.
3. The Song of Achilles, tonight. Obviously, teaching The Odyssey for the past four semesters, I know the story of Achilles, but it still hurts every time you read it. And believe me this time it FREAKING SUCKED. I had to force myself to keep reading this afternoon because I so didn’t want to come apart at the deaths.
Let’s start at the beginning. Arguably, and believe me I will argue, Odysseus and Penelope are the greatest love story ever told. Yes, all of you who hate on Odysseus because he slept with a few goddesses, I see your points coming, however, you’re just wrong. They are the most faithful and outlasting couple of any generation. They are a true love in literature. He built a bed out of a living tree for her, for God’s sakes. He picked her over her sister “the face that launched a thousand ships” and picked her for, what’s that you say, her cleverness, or in other words, her intelligence. Back then, women could be plucked for their loins out of the fields of ravage and no one would say anything about it. If you bedded her, she was yours. Poor Odysseus hears the speech of veiled Penelope and he is forever indebted to the “second prettiest” sister. He tricks goddesses to get back to Ithaca, land of rough hills, and herds, and Penelope. There aren’t many love stories that can keep par with Odysseus and Penelope. I dare authors to try.
Madeline Miller must have heard me. I was invested too much in Patroclus and Achilles, so much that I actually grieved when Patroclus died. I had to call my boyfriend I was so devastated and he’s probably beyond sick of hearing about this book. I’ve basically told him the whole story as it was moving along. He would be googling the “true” history while I told him what the book said and we both agreed that Madeline Miller got pretty damn close to the original story.
Maybe this book makes us ask ourselves what is it that we will let die for glory. Who will we step on. Who can stop us and what can make us go on. I often ask a best friend of mine how she can be an atheist. I am not an atheist (obviously because I’m too wrapped up in what’s out there, something in those constellations that make bright spots in the bruise of our sky), but I can’t imagine not believing in anything. I wouldn’t know what the point of living was for. Then again, is living one giant list that we’re ticking off on how successful we are (I think social media would have a good argument that it is this list). Yes, I have a job. Yes, I’m successful at my work. Yes, I have a boyfriend. Yes, I came from a great family. Yes, I own a house. If this is what everything amounts to in our life and then we’re shielded in black, I’m not at all sure what my purpose was here. How can there not be something.
In Ancient Greece, there were a plethora of Gods, a small collection of immortals with totems and symbols, expecting sacrifices of blood fruits and slit throats slipping on marble. Their faces were to be erected in temples where high priestesses licked at their stone feet. And they controlled every aspect of their created game. One might unleash winds, while still others appeared at boat masts and read fortunes to bearded men. This was life. I would be scared of the sudden flash of Thetis, Achille’s mother, and her bone white china skin, but this was the accepted culture of Greek tradition. I’m just not sure how one becomes a hero in this tradition. Achilles is foretold to be the greatest warrior of his time, but pride kills him in the end. If this is what fame amounts to in the time of the Greeks, then what the hell does fame amount to now? Is it the amount of hours you appear on reality television in stiletto heels. The amount of drama per capita you create. The hearts you break and the story these men (or women) tell after you’ve made your chink. The amount of school children you kill. The amount of skin you show. The amount of lipstick glossed hard on red butter of your mouth. I’m scared to know.
This isn’t the point though.
The point of this book is that inevitably what made Achilles a hero was not that he splayed Hector and drove him around on a cart of wild horses, but that he loved. And in this story by Madeline Miller, he loved a boy. I don’t think either characters, Achilles or Patroclus ever becomes a man. Now, writers have claimed for years that Achilles and Patroclus had a relationship. In the Iliad, he’s called the “best-beloved of his companions” and Plato argued that they slept together multiple times in “Symposium.” Truth be told, I want to believe that they were in love after reading this book. I was so moved by their love that I couldn’t handle Patroclus’s death because I knew that Achilles would absolutely maul someone’s face and rip his own heart out after he saw that Patroclus was carved open by Hector. This book was so well written that I could taste Achille’s grief. I didn’t even need to read his killing rampage. Just my imagining of his grieving face made my face break open. I was balling like a child for the next ten pages because I couldn’t get over Patroclus just floating around and making commentary on how stricken Achilles became.
I was in love with their love, like a fifth grader writing a valentine. In the beginning, I was enamored with their sweet learning of one another. Each leaving everything on the table. Patroclus says many times in the story (he’s the narrator) that they were always honest with one another. And they were. Disgustingly so. I found myself wanting a love story like Patroclus and Achilles. Lucky for me, I have one, (Insert wink face here), but Patroclus was so supportive of Achilles and his wicked pride, and Achilles was so supportive of Patroclus’s normalcy. Not only that, but the writing in this book was absolutely beautiful. I was so caught up in the story, I didn’t have time to highlight anything because I just wanted to keep reading.
A lot of people might turn away from this book because it is essentially about a homosexual love affair, but I’m begging you, don’t do that. This book could de-homophobe a generation, it’s that beautiful. In fact, they should sell it at Gay Rights parades because it plainly proves that love is just love no matter what form, shape, labels, or rules society puts on it, it will flourish, the first dandelion of spring being blown by the mouth of a beautiful woman. Love is truth and truth isn’t judged by right or wrong, but by whether it’s generous and whole. No one who reads this book can look at love in any other way.
I love the fact that both remain boyish for so long in the novel. Some reviewers complained that Achilles wasn’t prideful and angry soon enough, but aren’t we all looking for dynamic characters here? Achilles is a boy who is in love with a boy who has had hardly any successful familial relationships because his father only sees him to tell stories, his mother is a wandering and angry sea nymph who had him out of rape and Chiron, who is the Atticus of this story (the saving grace, the wise mystical creature) who he is taken away from to fight in a war at FOURTEEN. He’s fourteen when he originally goes to war. All he’s known is the curve of Patroclus’s spine for his teenagedom and he has to learn quickly how to entangle with men. Who can expect him to just stand on the bow of his ship and ask his men to kneel down before his greatness. He has to learn the filthy word of men (with far too much power in my opinion, Agamemnon, I’m looking at you, sir).
Last thing I’ll say about this I promise, but Martin Luther King Jr. is featured in a photo essay in TIME magazine. It’s a beautiful collection of photos about his life as a civil rights leader, but one of the photos is particularly striking. King is talking to his daughter over a kitchen table and she is adorable. She has bows in her hair, a perfectly buttoned dress on, and I imagine her fingers were just idly drawing shapes into the table. The star image of a girl asking a favor of her daddy. In the paragraph written below the picture it says that King was informing his daughter why she couldn’t go to the local theme park … because she was black. It’s devastating reading the paragraph and looking at this darling child when she is just first learning that because of something she can’t control, she’s been dubbed “less than.” I’ve always wondered how we learn what our worth is, and at what age. Everything Martin Luther King Jr. stood for and yet he was forced to inform his daughter of her own status within society. She’s just a girl, but she’s burdened with the adult world when there are still bows in her pigtailed hair. This is how I feel about Achilles and Patroclus in this story. They are burdened with the adult world and the only thing keeping them young and honeyed is each other.
There’s very few times in this world when we get to see who we are from an outsider’s perspective. The true love aspect of this novel is that Patroclus and Achilles were able to keep each other partially hidden from these outside views and strictly believed in one another. Probably glory is just to be loving and let others love you in return.