Nearly 3,000 years since he was immortalized in Homer’s epic The Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles is still getting literary makeovers. He has appeared in Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and the Captain Marvel comic-book series. A recent cluster of novels have featured this warrior, including literary writer David Malouf’s 2009 novel Ransom, and paranormal-romance writer P.C. Cast’s Warrior Rising, a romantic adventure based on the Trojan War, (complete with steamy cover art of Achilles’ bare chest).
If you were going to retell the story of one of the great lovers in Greek Mythology, you could choose Paris, whose love (or lust) for Helen launched a thousand ships against the city of Troy, and removed this great city off the map. Or perhaps Orpheus, whose devotion to Eurydice, led him down to the underworld to try and reclaim her. However, the last mythical figure you would choose, as a romantic hero, would be pride driven Achilles, who withdrew from battle after Agamemnon had slighted his honor – and only returns to slaughter Hector after Patroclus’ death.
If you haven’t read the Iliad or watched the awful 2004 adaptation Troy, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Homer’s Iliad is a tale about the turbulent period in the 10th and final year of the Trojan War. Achilles, half god, half man and Aristos Achaion, the best of Greeks, was the youngest hero to go to Troy, but the one who carried the heaviest burden of fate: he knew he was never to return home again.
Madeline Miller, a young first time novelist, and author of The Song Of Achilles, is obsessed with this hero; she states, “in particular, this grief stricken, devastated reaction to losing Patroclus. That was the moment I kept returning to, because I wanted to understand it. Patroclus doesn’t appear very much in The Iliad. He’s elusive, a mystery really. And so I wanted to explore the question: who is this man who means so much to Achilles?”
The result is a superb novel called The Song Of Achilles, which won the Orange Book Prize back in 2012 for best fiction. The novel roams back to the years before the start of the Trojan War, to tell of the friendship between Patroclus and Achilles. The novel is original, clever, and in a class of its own where it explores the beautifully drawn character of Patroclus, who is seen as a complex and an endearing man, who balances Achilles’ immortal side perfectly. Madeline Miller has found the lover beneath the bloodshed and fury of Achilles, as the story is told from the perspective of Patroclus.
Patroclus is exiled by his father to live in the court of Peleus, and soon falls in love with his host’s son, the superhuman Achilles: from childhood, his demi-god status means he is swifter, more beautiful and more skilled than all his peers. Astonishingly to Patroclus, Achilles returns his love, and the two boys grow together into adulthood and a love affair.
Miller, who is 33, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her partner Nathaniel. She started her book 10 years ago, in her final year as an undergraduate studying Latin and ancient Greek at Brown University – Rhode Island. The idea of the story was to stay as close to the myth as possible, which Miller has certainly achieved. The book might have taken 10 years, the length of the Trojan War, but Miller states, “every time I thought ‘I cant do this’ I would go back and say ‘no I owe it to them.” The more she thought about Patroclus she says, “the more intensely moved I was.” He is referred to in the Iliad as “Gentle Patroclus” and that jumped out to her, because gentleness was not a common quality of these ancient Greek heroes. “Patroclus was happy with Achilles being the best, and being his companion, which put him in Achilles’ shadow. That doesn’t bother him, which also makes him extraordinary. I really thought: I want to give this man a voice.”
The sense of impending tragedy is never far away from these lovers. Achilles knows that he must choose between a short, glorious life, and a long one lived in obscurity. Miller ramps up the dramatic irony inherent in their story. Both know Achilles will never return from Troy: he is fated to die there. But Patroclus is not featured in the prophecies, so he dreads the horror of life after Achilles’s death: “I rose and rubbed my limbs, slapped them awake, trying to ward off a rising hysteria. This is what it will be, every day, without him. I felt a wild-eyed tightness in my chest, like a scream. Every day, without him.”
We know that Patroclus dies before Achilles, and it is only after he is gone that we are shown the truly terrifying aspect of Achilles’ immortal nature. When he finally corners Hector, Hector begs for his body to be returned to Troy, but “Achilles makes a sound like chocking. ‘There are no bargains between lions and men.”
There have long been suggestions that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers; a fragment of a play by Aeschylus mentioned their “frequent kisses.” And Miller states “I think there have been many people who have taken them as close companions, but looking at the way Achilles mourns Patroclus’ death, how he holds his dead body all night, and wanting their ashes to be put together – that seems to say something beyond friendship to me.” Miller also states “for me the love story between these two men was at the heart of the story and the turning point of the Iliad – I really wanted to honor that.”
The Song Of Achilles is not pretentious or complicated, there is plenty of sexual tension, but as Miller states, love is the whole point of this story. This book succeeds because it sits comfortably between literature and commercial fiction, without being at all trashy. It does what best novels do – it transports you to another world – as well as doing something that few novels bother to do: it makes you feel incredibly clever.
The Iliad’s popularity seems perhaps stronger than ever. One reason for the poem’s current popularity in the UK and the US, Miller suspects, is our extended conflict overseas. “This poem is about a war, a very long war. It’s about [the questions]: are our leaders leading us astray, can we trust them, are they selfish, what about the common soldiers and people who are suffering on the ground? And it’s a testament to how insightful the work is that we can look to it and still find new resonance.”
Medline Miller is currently working on her second novel, which is based on The Odyssey, and she hopes she will complete this one in less than a decade.
Miller might have spent 10 years writing The Song Of Achilles, yet her smooth prose conceals the painstaking research she has clearly put into it. This is a deeply affecting version of the Achilles story: a fully three-dimensional man – a son, a father, a husband and lover – now exists where a two-dimensional superhero previously stood.