Epic love story

Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles

Miller’s debut novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, teases out the subtext in Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship to craft a compelling love story.

Written by Matthew Lloyd on 1 February 2018

Were Achilles and Patroclus lovers? In one sense, the question is nonsense – historically, Achilles and Patroclus never were; as such, the question is usually taken to refer to their relationship in the Iliad. Here, the evidence is more ambiguous: at no point in the epic are they explicitly labelled as lovers, but this did not discourage Aeschylus, Plato, Aeschines, and many other ancient authors from portraying their relationship as sexual. Xenophon disagreed, arguing through Socrates that they were nothing more than comrades (Symposium 8.31). Nevertheless, Homer’s silence on the issue rings out across the ages.

Madeline Miller, an American novelist and high school teacher of Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare, found Plato’s answer more plausible than Xenophon’s. Inspired by the grief Achilles displays when he hears about Patroclus’ death in the Iliad, Miller sought to explain why Achilles felt so strongly about this relatively minor character in the poem. She spent ten years writing the book, using a range of Classical sources, particularly focusing on the Iliad. The story is told from Patroclus’ perspective, as Miller explains: “Most of us aren’t Achilles – but we can still be Patroclus. What does it mean to try to be an ethical person in a violent world?”

The Song of Achilles was released in September 2011, to critical and commercial accolades (it won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 and was a New York Times Bestseller). Like the epic on which it is based, it has been translated numerous times into many languages, including Greek.

Achilles and Patroclus in love

While the Iliad is at best ambiguous regarding a sexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, writers have presented them as lovers from as early as the fifth century BC. In Plato’s Symposium (179E-180B), the character Phaedrus mentions that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, mentioning a play by Aeschylus that we only know in fragments, the Myrmidons, in which the playwright mentions the “many kisses” between them.Show Miller cites Plato as her initial inspiration for their relationship.

Plato and Aeschylus, however, present Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship on different terms to that of Miller. In these Classical Athenian texts, the relationship follows the social mores of the time: pederasty. Plato’s Phaedrus even disagrees with Aeschylus’ interpretation, as the playwright makes Achilles the older, dominant partner in the relationship while in the Iliad Patroclus is said to be older. W.M. Clarke argued that this interpretation was at the core of Xenophon’s rejection of the relationship: he judges based on Classical Athenian standards of behaviour, not those of Homer.Show Clarke 1978, pp. 388-389.

Later interpretations also seem to have rejected the idea that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. Roman poets Propertius (2.8) and Ovid (Heroides 3.7-56; Ars Amatoria 2.711-716) focused on his love for Briseis. The various myths around Achilles include numerous female “lovers”: Deidameia, the mother of his son; the Amazon Penthesileia, with whom he fell in love as he killed her; Polyxena, whom his shade demanded be sacrificed on his tomb at death. By the fourteenth century AD, Dante Aligheri placed Achilles in the second circle of his hell with the lustful rather than in the fifth with the wrathful.Show King 1987, p. 171.

W.M. Clarke sought to return the argument to the Iliad, and not its subsequent reception. The central tenants of his arguments are that Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is unique in the epics, that understanding their relationship as pederasty (as Aeschylus and Plato did) is anachronistic for the epics, and that “Homer” does not write about sexual relationships, and so we should not expect more detail about Achilles and Patroclus than we have for other relationships.

Clarke did not convince everyone. Other scholars interpret the intensity of the relationship as homosocial rather than homosexual.Show Halperin 2000; Fantuzzi 2012, pp. 190-191. Marco Fantuzzi suggests that the interpretation of “innuendo” or subtext in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, “seems to concern more the reader-response than the explicit intentions of the texts.”Show Fantuzzi 2012, pp. 190-191. With regards to Miller’s work, I am tempted to ask the question: aren’t reader responses just as important?

Patroclus’ song

The Song of Achilles is not the first modern novel to retell the Iliad, or to portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. As Miller says: “So much of classical literature is retelling the same stories […] There’s no such thing as a sacred text.” It does, however, place their relationship front-and-centre, as well as presenting it through the eyes of Patroclus in a first-person narrative.

Patroclus is a less familiar character to the modern world than Achilles, and Miller takes some liberties with him as a result. He is not a warrior, focusing instead on healing and running Achilles’ camp. He focuses less on Achilles’ wrath and more on his beautiful qualities – his singing and his lyre playing, his grace. The first-person narrative puts us in Patroclus’ head, and so he does not emphasise his own qualities – his kindness, his empathy – but we recognise them. This Patroclus is not an ancient character, but he works in the context of the story.

Miller uses multiple sources to flesh out the story, particularly of the heroes’ early years. Rather than Plato or Aeschylus, she follows the first century AD Roman poet Statius’ (unfinished) Achilleid with regard to their ages: “In the Achilleid, the boys are the same age, whereas in the Iliad it’s implied that Patroclus is older. To me, the two have always resonated as peers, so that was the tradition I followed.” In The Song of Achilles, Patroclus and Achilles largely grow up together. For many of the mythic events of Achilles’ youth – growing up in Phthia, training with Chiron, and hiding on Scyros – Patroclus was his companion, as the Iliad implies.

Their relationship is sweet, but very modern. Achilles is tender towards Patroclus, but there is also a sense of distance between them. He is part-god; he will have fame and has a destiny; once they reach Troy, he revels in slaughter. Patroclus finds peace among the violence, until his sense of responsibility for the suffering of their fellow Greeks gets the better of him and he chooses to put on Achilles’ armour to drive the Trojans from the camp, leading the story to its tragic conclusion.

The world of Patroclus

In many retellings of Greek myths, the stories are given an historical (usually Late Bronze Age) setting. Miller resists this temptation, instead using a generic “Greek” setting, with black-figure pottery, life-size sculpture, Mycenaean wall painting, and Homeric social systems. The cover of the north American edition of the book is a Corinthian helmet.

More important than the historical setting are the characters. Besides Achilles and Patroclus, there is Odysseus, cunning trickster and recognized by the nine-year-old Patroclus as “too clever by half.” His comradely relationship with Diomedes is preserved, with the latter chiding Odysseus for how often he goes on about his wife. Other heroes are more distant: Agamemnon is arrogant and superstitious; Ajax, brooding, waits for his chance to be Aristos Achaion; Hector viewed only across the battlefield – the story is told from Patroclus’ viewpoint; he only knows those whom he encounters.

Chiron stands out, for while his initial appearance imparts awe on Patroclus, subsequently the fact that he is a Centaur is unremarkable. It is representative of the casual way in which Miller incorporates the supernatural into the story. In her Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin argued that, “The Homeric use of quarrelsome deities to motivate, illuminate, and interfere with human choices and emotions doesn’t work well in a novel,” but Miller manages something different. The gods are real, and Achilles’ mother is a goddess, but she is the only god with whom Patroclus has any contact (until his fateful encounter with Apollo) – why would he encounter any of the others?

Included in this use of the supernatural is the inviolability of oaths and prophecies. The former of these drags Patroclus to Troy; the latter means that he and Achilles go knowing that Achilles will die. As such, they work to prolong the war – they know that Hector must die first, and so Achilles does not fight him: “Well, why should I kill him? He’s done nothing to me.”

As such, Miller presents the length of the war as partially the fault of the lovers. Years into the war, Patroclus reflects (p. 257) “For me these four years had been an abundance, time that had been wrested from the hands of miserly fates. But for them it was a life stolen: from children and wives, from family and home.” Nevertheless, Patroclus remains sympathetic. It is not just he and Achilles whose lives are prolonged by the war: Briseis and the women of the camp lead relatively happy existences as long as the heroes are alive.

She also plays with the prophecies a little. In the historical tradition, the prophecy that Troy will not fall until the best of the Achaeans have argued refers to the events of the Iliad and the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles. In The Song of Achilles it is implied that it is not this argument, but Patroclus’ disagreement with Achilles over his withdrawal that is the argument. For Miller, it is Patroclus, not Achilles, who is best of the Greeks.

Conclusions

I like The Song of Achilles partially because it makes many of the choices that I think mythic retellings should – including the gods; no specific historical setting; compelling characters driving events I already know. Whether or not Achilles and Patroclus were “really” lovers – if such a statement even makes sense – is immaterial to the telling of this story: Miller presents the story as if they were lovers, and it works. For me, that is a valuable contribution to the re-telling of old stories.

I have strong feelings about retellings of the Trojan War that have prevented me from enjoying media in the past. I think that one way in which they often fail is in trying to make the events of the Trojan War realistic – hence removing elements such as the gods that do not fit into such notions.

Miller takes an approach that I think produces a much better work: she makes the characters believable, even when they are gods, part-horse, or heroes. She crafts the known sequence of events into a narrative that follows characters whose decisions make sense from the ways in which they develop in the novel. In Miller’s words: “I saw myself as providing the connective tissue between Homer’s bones. Homer tells us the end of Patroclus’ life, but I wanted to tell the beginning.”

Miller had strong hopes for her novel’s impact: “I hope that it might inspire some interest in Greek mythology in general. I also hope that it might help to combat some of the homophobia that I see too often.” She also mentions in interviews how John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius completely changed the way she read Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I would not say that The Song of Achilles changed how I read the Iliad, or whether I believe that the epics imply that they were lovers. Rather, it has affected how I approach retellings of ancient myths. The Song of Achilles is worthwhile, I believe, because it allows us to imagine queer characters are heroic in both traditional (Achilles) and non-traditional (Patroclus) ways. It makes its own argument for the necessity of the telling. That has become what I look for in a mythic retelling.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading:

  • W.M. Clarke, “Achilles and Patroclus in love”, Hermes 106 (1978), pp. 381-396.
  • K.C. King, Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages (1987).
  • M. Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love. Intertextual Studies (2012).
  • D.M. Halperin, “How to do the history of male homosexuality”, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6 (2000), pp. 87-124.

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