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Locus Amoenus: All By My Shelf

Watch the amazing Locus juggle several books at once, and try not to drop any! Free admission.

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Currently reading

One Corpse Too Many (The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael Book 2)
Ellis Peters
Progress: 20%
Shameless: A Sexual Reformation
Nadia Bolz-Weber
House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
SPOILER ALERT!

Final Thoughts: Song of Achilles

 The Song of Achilles: A Novel - Madeline Miller

This one is definitely going into my list of favorite reads for this year. It moved me deeply enough that I'm not sure how much I can even write about it. I might have to come back and add to this post in the days to come, because I know that the story and characters will haunt me for a while.

 

It took me several pages to realize who the first person POV was (in my defense, it's been at least a couple of decades since I last read the source material), and I found the choice intriguing. Why Patroclus? After all, he will die before Achilles, and it is his death that calls down the final act of the hero's life. But it made sense. Patroclus is the one closest to Achilles, the one who knows him almost better than he knows himself. At the same time, it lets the reader have some needed distance from Achilles; after all, he is half god, and there is always a part of him that is unknowable and must remain so.

 

Of course, this left me wondering how the ending would be handled. After all, what is the story of Achilles without his final rage at the death of Patroclus, and his own fate fulfilled? The solution came in the story's environment itself: the system of beliefs that populate the world with shades and spirits, until these are put to rest. Thus, through the eyes of a now helpless and immaterial Patroclus, we see the final days of Achilles, and the end of the war. And only once the story is complete does Patroclus gain his release, and is able to rejoin his beloved Achilles.

 

There's a lot more here, of course: the story of two boys growing up together; a mother's attempts to procure both safety and fame for her son; and above all the complicated insistence on a man's honor and memory. Achilles, and the men of his society, are definitely in the camp of "better to burn out than fade away." Given the choice between a long but uneventful life and a brief glorious one, he chooses the latter. It is Patroclus who helps us, the readers, understand this philosophy; we share his journey from denial to acceptance of Achilles' destiny.

 

This helps give depth to a hero who is often perceived as being arrogant and a shallow chaser of glory. We see him as a young man, decidedly against fighting and struggling to come to terms with the divine part of himself. Later on, a prisoner of prophesies, he still does his best to remain in control of the situation, helping drag the war along for a decade as he postpones his encounter with Hector, whose death will precede his according to fate. And finally, we see him accept that everything happened as foretold, and seek out his own end. By the end of his story, we might still be frustrated at some of his decisions, but we also acknowledge that he knows things we do not about the fickleness of fate and of the gods. And, in the end, we are perhaps comforted by the thought that he and Patroclus are reunited in the afterlife. How this last piece of the puzzle falls into place is the most moving part of all.

 

Edit: I had meant to include accompanying music; a piece or album that I find goes well with the book. For this one, the album that came to mind was An Ancient Muse, by Loreena McKennitt.