‘Song of Achilles’: The Greatest Slash Fanfiction Ever Written
You guys wanna know my favorite-ever fic?
It’s not on Archive of Our Own, and it’s definitely not this shit. It’s a published novel by the author Madeline Miller, and it reads like a dream. Better than a dream. I’ve heard it said that in the Viking days, a bard would actually come to someone’s mead hall or whatever and actually sing stories. You know Beowulf? People didn’t read it. It wasn’t published. There weren’t printing presses and also people probably couldn’t read anyway. So they all gathered together and listened to a guy literally sing the story. And I think that’s beautiful. Imagining a bunch of burly Viking dudes back from a day of pillaging, all cuddled up by the fire listening to Hrothnar sing for a couple hours. It’s too cute.
So Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles reads like that. But better. Way better. It reads like a Leonard Cohen song. Every line is poetry, filled with passion, brokenness, and a sense of the divine.
And yes, it is fanfiction.
It’s a retelling of the myth of Achilles, which was written by the O.G. content creator and author Homer, who wrote about the demigod in his epic poem The Iliad. But it isn’t just about Achilles; it’s also about his lover Patroclus, and the relationship the two form as young men.
“Hold up,” you might be thinking. “This is where the fanfiction part begins right? no way Homer was actually writing about two men in love.” Well, you’re wrong. The short answer is, Achilles and his lover Patroclus did indeed have a loving and intimate relationship. And that relationship is based on an ancient Greek homosexual relationship between an adult male (an erastes) and a younger male (the eronemous).
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “WTF EW ADULT MEN HAVING RELATIONSHIPS WITH TEENAGE BOYS? I’M NOT READING THAT.” DON’T WORRY, the book is not about that. In the story, Patroclus and Achilles are presented as the same age. I’m merely saying that it was customary in ancient Greece for older men to form homosexual relationships with younger men while also tutoring them in both education and warfare. In fact, there was a military organization called the Sacred Band of Thebes that was made up of 150 pairs of couples such as these.
Yes, it’s icky by our standards (and in general), but the ancient world was an icky place where most people did not live long at all. People’s lives were shorter, and they were believed to reach sexual maturity when they were younger. Achilles himself formed a relationship with the older Patroclus when he was entering into the military to fight the Trojan war. Homer was using a relationship that already existed in Ancient Greece as a jumping-off point.
Now, by our standards, that shit is gross. So Madeline Miller made a change. She cast Patroclus as young prince with an overbearing father who cannot stand his son’s weakness and “effeminacy.” Patroclus lives a lonely, isolated life. He has no friends, and he can’t rely on his parents. One day, he is physically bullied by an older boy, and he stands up for himself by shoving the boy away from him. Good news!
Bad news is, the boy hits his head on a rock and dies. Oops. So Pat is banished from his kingdom and sent to live with King Peleus, the father of Achilles. Patroclus is immediately fascinated by Achilles, but has no idea why (hint: gay). The two young boys begin to form a friendship, and so begins one of the most achingly beautiful love stories I have ever read.
“Fanfiction” is not an insult
Now, before we go on, I hope none of y’all think that by calling this work a “slash fic” that I am in some way attempting to denigrate it. On the contrary, I am rather trying to uplift the definition of fanfiction out of the realm of “horny smut stories written by horny teens” and into the realm of literature. Because here’s the thing: I love a good fic. I’ve read a lot of them. And if you too are a fan of the fic then you know that some of those stories read better than actual books.
I have read plenty of beautifully written fan fictions that have rendered me a weepy little puddle of a person on the floor. Just because someone is not a “published writer” doesn’t mean that they’re not damn good at it. And just because someone is a “published writer” doesn’t mean that they are good at it (Jordan Peterson has books out, y’all. lol ew.) HOWEVER. Sometimes the world needs a hero (like Achilles) to lift something once thought of as “common” into the realms of “extraordinary.” That person is Madeline Miller. In writing Song of Achilles, she has helped in lifting people’s idea of fanfiction out of the realm of a smut that pollutes the bowels internet and into the realm of smut that is a NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLER. Because yes, there is smut in this book. And it is the most romantic smut I have ever read.
So what makes this book so good, anyway?
Well for one, Madeline Miller is a baller writer who comes up with banger lines like “the look on her face was like thirst” or “he crushed my lips to wine.” Seriously, this book is written like an actual poem. A song. The words on the page actually sing in a way that I have never experienced before. She spent time with these words. Chewed on them. Let them marinate. She wove them together into beautiful tapestries of prose and the re-wove them again to make them even more beautiful.
This book took her over a decade to write, and it shows. There is not a single wasted word. Leonard Cohen described poetry as “using the perfect words perfectly,” and that is exactly what Madeline Miller did. The lines themselves of this book are so beautiful that they make you want to cry. It’s like listening to a melody that breaks your heart. Brings tears to your eyes for reasons that your mind doesn’t quite understand but your heart does. It is the only book I’ve ever read that can truly be categorized as a “song.”
Now, why else is it so goddamn romantic?
Because Madeline Miller paints a picture of the most intimate relationship possible for lovers to have. Achilles and Patroclus found each other as children, and loved each other even before they were entirely aware of their sexualities. They then experience their sexual awakening together and simultaneously become each other’s first time and first love. They have known each other since they were old enough to know anything, and their entire coming of age is filtered through the lens of each other. They watch themselves grow up in each other’s eyes. Their bond is deeper than any bond one can form with a lover in one’s adult life, because they are each other’s first of everything. It is enviably romantic, a type of romance that most people on the planet will never experience. To be in love with your best and oldest friend. Oh my Greek God, that is just beautiful.
And because of this tender friendship turned world shattering love, the story primes itself to make you weep like a baby towards the end. It isn’t a spoiler. We all know that Achilles dies in the Trojan War. That’s how The Iliad goes, and if you know the myth (or have seen the Brad Pitt movie Troy where they straight-wash Patroclus into being Achilles’ cousin), you know that Patroclus dies first. And oh sweet Greek Jesus this book does not pull its punches. It has set you up with the most beautiful love story ever written to then knock you down flat on your ass.
I read this book in two 8 hour sessions over two nights and I think I cried for the last fifty pages. It is fucking devastating. And I am of the point of view that the greatest works of art are always devastating. Why? Because the function of art, I believe, is to imitate life. And a fundamental part of life is death. Death is the great unifier. Every single human being on the planet will die. We may come from poverty or privilege, we make speak different languages, love different things, and have lived different lives, but are both blessed and doomed by the fact that all our paths will cross in death. We all reach the same end.
And I believe that the finest pieces of art imitate this cycle. They set up something beautiful, and then destroy it. And that is what it is to be born and live. HOWEVER. I don’t think this is a pessimistic result. It is a beautiful result. It is the highest form of beauty because it does not last forever. And therefore it has meaning.
Song of Achilles follows this exact path. It creates something beautiful and destroys it. And in a way, is this not how all relationships end? All love ends in separation, whether it is a breakup, or that final separation. But the beautiful thing is, we don’t know for certain if that separation is truly final. SERIOUSLY! Not to get woo-woo, but we can’t scientifically prove that life in all forms ends after death. WE JUST DON’T KNOW, which leads me to the last thing that makes art great: the possibility of beginning again. I won’t spoil the ending, but there is something to look forward to at the end of the Song of Achilles, something that will dry your tears. Hopefully that’s true of life, too. But we’ll all find out, won’t we?
(featured image: Ecco Press)
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