Eros and Tragedy: How “The Song of Achilles” Revolutionized Classics

Jayz Paloma
Aug 29, 2020 · 8 min read
Madeline Miller expertly transformed Homer’s epic poem into a modern classic. (PHOTO | MICHAEL SCHAFFLER)

The world of Homer’s Iliad is a treasure trove of rich stories, from the greatest of the Olympic gods to the least of mortal heroes. Many works about Greek mythology have been written, perhaps, most famously, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series or Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

Madeline Miller’s debut, The Song of Achilles, borrows much from Homer and Virgil’s epic poetry about the titular demigod’s life. But Miller made this book her own, through her smart choices in writing style and her masterful capturing of the emotional tone of the book.

Let us dive deeper into what made this novel a deserved winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction.

The story revolves around Patroclus, a prince who was exiled by his father at a young age after killing another boy in a fit of rage. He was sent to live in the court of Peleus, King of Thessaly, and father of the mortal demigod Achilles, the hero of the story. The two become inseparable, after a series of mishaps and conversations. Training together under a centaur named Chiron, they come to terms about their feelings and eventually, fall in love with each other. However, their love is challenged by Achilles’ mother, a sea nymph, and a goddess named Thetis, who disapproves of Patroclus’ human status as well as him being a possible obstacle to Achilles’ path to greatness.

Miller’s extensive background in greek classics was on full display in the novel. Having earned a BA and MA from Brown University, her prose is flowing and rich in descriptives, successfully portraying the Mycenaean culture in 1250 BC in stunning clarity:

“The room for meals was a long hall at the front of the palace, its windows opening onto Mount Othrys’ foothills…We sat on its oakwood benches(…) The food was simple but plentiful — salted fish, and thick bread with herbed cheese.”

What’s impressive is how Miller was able to incorporate the fantasy elements of greek mythology in the novel and make it resonate more as a human story. It would have been very easy to make it a full-blown fantasy book like Riordan’s series, as there are gods written into them as critical characters (i.e. Thetis and Achilles). While Miller makes it clear that the gods have supernatural powers, it doesn’t deter one from suspending disbelief and believing that this was a story of a mortal loving another mortal above all.

The decision to make Patroclus as the narrator of the story is probably the key difference that made the novel stand out. The titular character could have easily told the story, or perhaps Hector as the real hero in the Iliad. But Miller already decided from the beginning that Patroclus would be the voice of the novel.

In a book discussion, she mentioned that the decision was borne from Homer and Virgil’s stories of Achilles, where Patroclus had little to no development. This presented both a challenge and an opportunity for Miller, who used Homer’s Patroclus almost as a blank slate, citing how the sparse prose encouraged adaptations of the poet’s work. The result was work with an instantly original point-of-view, as Patroclus, a mortal, offered a much more relatable view of the world. He had the same human insecurities and fears of gods that mortals in greek mythologies had.

(Miller would go on to use this same technique in her sophomore novel, Circe, who used the POV of another minor character, this time from the Odyssey.)

Another interesting twist is how Miller maintained Patroclus’ POV throughout the novel, even in his death. This is not an uncommon technique, but Miller’s commitment to her linear narrative and having all events interpreted by her main character presented a stylistic challenge, and she was able to successfully overcome it.

What makes this work resonate is its ability to portray gods outside of their immortality, as creatures with similar vulnerabilities as humans. The two prominent examples, Thetis and Achilles, hold varying fears and insecurities that they extrapolated in the novel.

In this passage, Achilles intimates to Patroclus his worries about his mother:

“She wants you to be a god,” I told him.

“I know.” His face twisted with embarrassment, and despite itself, my heart lightened. It was such a boyish response. And so human. Parents, everywhere.

In another passage, the usual stoic Thetis looks back at how she has lost everything:

“I could not make him a god,” she says. Her jagged voice, rich with grief.

Greek myths have always portrayed gods as immortal beings with little to no regard for mortals and whose emotions rotate between lust and wrath stemming from general pettiness. The fact that Miller took the very opposite route and portrayed a three-dimensional character, with actual emotions and motivations outside of merely existing forever, is a testament to how in touch she is with her story.

Another interesting aspect of this novel is how Miller wrote the love between Achilles and Patroclus. Pederastic traditions in ancient Greece are well known wherein the erastes (older male), or lover, will have the responsibility to groom the eromenos (younger male), or beloved, into a functioning member of society, usually seen as an initiation rite. However, Miller defied these pederastic stereotypes.

For instance, erastes are usually seen as the stronger, more masculine, and the “giver,” the older male in the relationship while the eromenos, usually a younger pubescent male, is seen as more beautiful, weaker, and submissive, the “receiver” in the relationship. Patroclus is the older between the two, but it is he who is gentle versus the ultimate warrior that is Achilles.

Achilles is described as a beautiful man, with golden hair and swift but graceful movements. Contrastingly. Patroclus was never pictured as such. Achilles was also technically the higher being of the two, being a demigod. Knowing these points, it is easy to see why both these characters subverted the definitions of their supposedly respective roles.

Miller revealed that she deliberately wrote Achilles and Patroclus to be equals and that Achilles sees his lover as an emotion equal above all.

The story is heartbreaking but not for obvious reasons. It was not the amount of death it has, not even of its main characters. Death was a fact of life for mortals in Greek myths, and Achilles being a mortal demigod himself, was no exception. We are made aware mid- story that it is Achilles’ fate to die despite his greatness. What makes it work is the familiarity of how greek tragedies end. The Song of Achilles is ultimately a love story, and readers are preconditioned to root for the lovers to be together, how the trope of tragic star-crossed lovers usually go. There are sections of prose dedicated to soliloquies for this forbidden romance:

“It was almost like fear, in the way it filled me, rising in my chest. It was almost like tears, in how swiftly it came. But it was neither of those, buoyant where they were heavy, bright were they dull.”

Yet even with the cliche tropes, Miller found a way to make it original. The reasons for Achilles’ and Patroclus’ inability to be together leans on the fact that, due to their conflicting status as god and mortal and not because of their gender. In fact, never was the word “gay” nor “homosexual” ever mentioned in the novel, and two men loving each other only got one negative comment from one of the characters (and just because he found it strange that the main characters stayed companions even after boyhood). This normalization of same-sex love in a novel set 3,000 years before is both beautiful and empowering: something relevant to our own time.

Madeline Miller’s debut novel proved that the classics have a place in modern literature. With a formula of expert research, beautiful and descriptive prose, unique point-of-view, humanistic characterization, and deft handling of the sensitive material, the author was able to transform a 3,000-year-old text into a refreshingly original work of fiction that will inspire and champion same-sex love for generations to come.

Miller’s works, The Song of Achilles and Circe have not only brought attention to greek classics but made Homer and Virgil accessible to the masses. Many readers, while showing appreciation for greek myths, have never delved into the epic poems because they are overwhelmed by the mnemonic devices, epithets, or just the sheer length of the poems. Miller’s adaptations condensed these texts and transformed them with a style that is more appealing to modern readers, and she has both the multitude of awards and book sales to prove it.

This novel is very highly recommended to enthusiasts of greek classics or LGBT fiction. But I would also recommend it to anyone who loves reading. Outside of the merits of its core topics, this is overall an excellently written book that would be a great addition to anyone’s collection.

“In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood like a hundred golden urns pouring out of the sun.”

As a young reader and writer within the LGBT community, The Song of Achilles had a deep impact on me, surprisingly not because of how it examined the historicity of homosexuality and gay romantic relationships, but the exact opposite; Madeline Miller wrote the romance of Patroclus and Achilles in a way that everyone from any period can relate to it. The novel did not focus on the stereotypical physical roles of gay couples, nor the discrimination of their relationship. Instead, it portrayed them as equals and extrapolated how love, even in 1250 BC, knew no gender nor sex. Despite whatever ending it had, it is the type of positive characterization and normalization of same-sex romance this genre sorely needs.

Jay-ar Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. He has extensive background in campus journalism as an editor-in-chief in elementary and high school as well as a contributor in his college days in UP Diliman. Currently the Associate Editor at Vox Populi PH, he likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard. Leave your love notes to Jay-ar here: jr@voxpopuliph.com.

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Jayz Paloma

Written by

Wonderfully weird 美 HR guy. Musician. Writer. https://tinyurl.com/y9hnfsw4

Vox Populi PH

Vox Populi PH is led by an organization of young writers who want to create new, critical spaces for literature, analysis, and community journalism for readers of all ages in the Philippines.

Jayz Paloma

Written by

Wonderfully weird 美 HR guy. Musician. Writer. https://tinyurl.com/y9hnfsw4

Vox Populi PH

Vox Populi PH is led by an organization of young writers who want to create new, critical spaces for literature, analysis, and community journalism for readers of all ages in the Philippines.

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