A novel based on Homer’s The Iliad that wins one of the highest literary accolades can expect a lot of attention. On a first read, debut novelist Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, the 2012 Orange Prize winner, was disappointing. Those expecting the depth and intricacy of other literary reinterpretations of Homer, such as Christa Wolf’s Cassandra or Joyce’s Ulysses, won’t find it. However, taken as a romance that also happens to be a sword-and-sandals epic offering an accessible entry point into the Classics, the novel is worthy of praise.
Fathered by a king who is also an Argonaut of legend, protagonist and narrator Patroclus doesn’t live up to expectations. As a young boy, to his father’s disappointment, he shows neither athletic skill nor the promise of a future warrior. At age ten, Patroclus is exiled after accidentally killing a nobleman’s son. Alone, no longer bearing the title of prince, he arrives at the palace of Peleus, Achilles’ father, to be raised as a ward. Shy, awkward and possessing a truly pitiful amount of self-esteem, it seems impossible that such a character might end up with the object of his affection, the ‘unearthly’ hunk, Achilles. Yet the two quite quickly end up as a couple. This standard romantic plot is familiar from many romance novels, and Miller overdoes it. Patroclus constantly considers how beautiful Achilles is, meticulously mentioning every body part, including the ‘perfectly formed pads of the toes, the tendons that flickered like lyre-strings’, which gets old quickly. Still, considering Achilles is the son of a goddess, and with all extant sources that mention Achilles, from The Iliad to Plato’s Symposium, constantly reminding us he is the most ‘god-like’ of men, Patroclus does have justification for swooning.
Miller’s adaptation, though differing slightly from Homer’s account, potentially enriches readings of The Iliad. The ancient poem details the mythic Trojan War, focusing predominantly upon Achilles’ anger, hubris and wrath. The poem’s opening line translates as ‘Rage – Goddess, sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles’. It’s often forgotten that though Achilles is remembered for slaughter, it is his love for Patroclus that catalyses his most famed feats. The transformation of the loving, joyful Achilles into the inhuman, unstoppable slayer of men is crucial to the poem’s pathos and tragedy. By fleshing out the relationship between the two, Miller humanises the demigod, contextualising Achilles’ fatalistic wrath in the closing books of The Iliad for modern readers.
Nevertheless, Miller’s attempts to highlight the average man’s potential to be heroic overcompensate. Homer’s Patroclus is a warrior and also a healer, yet for the thematic structure of Miller’s work his martial identity is diminished. One of Patroclus’s strengths makes it into both accounts: he does not possess extraordinary strength or magical powers but, crucially, is able to criticise and act against Achilles’ wishes. Yet Miller’s Patroclus, lacking the ability to fight and defend himself, often seems completely helpless. In one scene, with the Trojan War in full swing, Patroclus seems invulnerable while other soldiers die in graphically gory ways. At this point, he realises that Achilles is killing any foe that looks upon him, making him perfectly safe in the middle of a war. While his ‘spear sagged forgotten’, lovelorn Patroclus stares at his lover: ‘all I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs’.
A large body of evidence within the Homeric texts all but explicitly states that the two were lovers, but there is disagreement on who was the dominant partner. Miller sidesteps this phallus-obsessed debate, putting the dynamics of their sex life behind closed doors. That isn’t to say the pair don’t get somewhat hot and steamy in scenes involving some cringeworthy descriptions: ‘a warm drop of pleasure spreads beneath my skin. More.’ Miller’s skills shine much more in simply portraying the pair’s deep intimacy and mutual love for each other.
Sadly for classicists, not everyone has the taste for epic poetry; The Song of Achilles, however, is definitely a starting point to recommend. Though the prose is simple, lacking the intricacies of Homer, it still manages to tackle complex themes of glory, growing up, responsibility and mortality. It also deserves praise for actually depicting the homosexual relationship between its protagonists. Published and supported heavily by Bloomsbury, it shows a relationship that often gets completely ignored in commercial adaptations of machismo-fuelled Greek myth, most notably Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 blockbuster Troy. The Song of Achilles is a worthy addition to the Achilles mythos and marks the beginning of Miller’s promising career.