The song of Achilles
The Song of Achilles is a 2011 novel by American writer Madeline Miller. Set during the Greek Heroic Age, it is an adaptation of Homer’s Iliad. Patroclus, Achilles’ lover, is the narrator of The Song of Achilles.
Achilles, son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus. “The best of all the Greeks,” is strong, swift, and beautiful, irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath.
Patroclus, a young Greek prince, grows up with a father disappointed by Patroclus’ mediocrity. When Patroclus is nine years old, his father takes him to Sparta where Patroclus presents himself as a suitor for Helen. Helen is a Spartan princess and known to be the most beautiful woman in Greece.
Helen chooses her husband, Menelaus, from the suitors, and the rest of the men make an oath that they will defend her choice.
After Patroclus accidentally kills a boy of noble birth, Patroclus’s father exiles him to Phthia where he befriends King Peleus’ son, Achilles. At first, Patroclus is resistant to friendship with Achilles, but eventually the two develop a bond. Patroclus swears by blood oath and love to be Achilles’ brother-in-arms. Then Patroclus follows Achilles to Mount Pelion where the centaur Chiron trains them. Achilles’ mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, expresses her dislike of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, and hates that Patroclus followed Achilles to Mount Pelion. One night when they are alone, Patroclus and Achilles make love.
The Trojan War
Achilles and Patroclus join the Greeks, led by Agamemnon, and go to war with the Trojans at Troy. Achilles wins multiple fights easily, demonstrating his superior warrior strength. When the Greeks raid the Trojans, Achilles claims a young girl named Briseis from the plunder, attempting to save her from Agamemnon’s violent lust. Patroclus and Briseis quickly become close companions.
When Agamemnon offends the gods by refusing to return the daughter of a priest, the gods send a plague among the Greeks. Achilles tries to tell the Greeks that the reason for the plague is Agamemnon’s refusal to return the girl, but Agamemnon responds by taking Briseis away from Achilles and dishonoring him in front of the rest of the men. As a result, Achilles refuses to fight in Agamemnon’s ranks, believing himself to be superior.
As the Greeks subsequently lose battles and soldiers die in scores, Patroclus adorns Achilles’ armor and takes his place in the war. Patroclus takes out one of the strongest Trojan warriors, but soon thereafter prince Hector kills him. Achilles, mad with grief, returns to war after Patroclus’ death and eventually kills Hector, parading Hector’s fallen corpse around in the process. King Priam of Troy visits Achilles one night and begs him to release Hector’s body so that he can have a proper funeral. Achilles agrees.
Achilles slaughters more and more notable Trojans as the war goes on. Eventually, Paris, King Priam’s who had taken Helen, kills him when Paris shoots Achilles with an arrow. Afterward, Achilles’ son Pyrrhus enters the war. Pyrrhus rejects the idea of Achilles’ ashes being buried alongside Patroclus’, but Thetis arranges for their joint burial. In the conclusion of the novel, Patroclus describes looking at his and Achilles’ grave, and reuniting with Achilles in the underworld.
Related: Idioms from Greek Mythology
Whenever someone retells a story, inevitably, critics will make comparisons with the original. And as many goodreads reviews pointed out for the Miller took a few too many liberties. The main characters are almost unrecognizable, and while it is common to teak a few things to your narrative not everyone was pleased.
The first line of the Iliad identifies the crux of the story: rage. Achilles’ rage is his defining characteristic, not his warmth or his kindness or his gentleness. His moments of affection (typically involving Thetis) are always filtered through anger. Even Patroclus calls out Achilles on his poor behavior. Part of what makes Achilles such a fascinating character is his flaws: his anger, his intolerance, his blind fury. I’d concede that some of it might be misguided love, but the majority is rage.
In the Iliad Patroclus is one of the Achaeans’ most formidable warriors: he kills more than almost any other character, including a son of Zeus. He convincingly portrays Achilles to the point that the Achaeans’ own armies are roused to battle again. Patroclus’ only stopped from scaling the walls of Troy itself when the god Apollo himself plucks him off the wall the fourth time he tries, so that Hector can fight him. Patroclus is Achilles’s equal— it’s an important detail.
The way Miller writes him is nothing like that. A certain amount of leeway is to be expected, of course, but changing the character and personality of one of Homer’s most famous figures to such an extent is beyond bizarre. Miller writes him as a limp-wristed medic twink who does nothing but follow Achilles around like a sycophantic pet. When he puts on Achilles’s armor to go into battle, no one thinks he’ll replace Achilles; everyone—Achilles included!—thinks he’ll fall instantly. The Homeric Patroclus was an excellent fighter in his own right, but Miller’s Patroclus is a waifish pansy who can barely lift a spear.