I know, I know. I’m supposed to review films, but I really hope this book will eventually grace the big screen. The rights have apparently been acquired by Caryn Mandabach Productions (Peaky Blinders).
Madeline Miller’s book The Song of Achilles follows the story of Troy: the Iliad. For those of you that are unfamiliar it starts when Queen Helen leaves Sparta (Greece) with Prince Paris for Troy (in Asia Minor). This sparks a diplomatic nightmare, and the Greeks end up sailing over to reclaim her in a thousand ships, lead by Agamemnon of Mycenae and his brother the spurned Menelaus of Sparta. The Siege lasts for 10 years until it is finally broken when the Greeks construct a giant wooden horse as a pretend gift for Troy and the Gods. Hidden inside, they open the gates of Troy and the rest of their army pours in and ransacks the city.
Miller’s book focuses on the story of Achilles who, although he had no part in starting the war, is arguably its main protagonist. He is the greatest hero and fighter on the side of the Greeks, but is unruly and suspicious of authority. He has numerous disputes with Agamemnon. One such dispute results in him refusing to fight and without him the Greeks start to lose the war.
Achilles is featured much in ancient Greek pottery, literature and culture. There is no doubt he has played a part in representing masculinity for the West. Most of us will still remember the Hollywood film Troy (2004), with Brad Pitt in the role. Pitt plays him as a fearsome fighter, honourable and respected by all. He is also very much a ladies man too. In a similar way, the siege of Troy has been used by the West as a way to glorify war. The original book helped to form the concept of ‘nationhood’ for the Greeks, and since then fighting for your country has been held in great esteem – and also the sign of a ‘real’ man. I want to argue here that this is a problematic interpretation of the original ancient Greek text, written by Homer. Miller’s perspective shows a clearer understanding of the complexity of the original themes and ideas.
If you want a breakdown of the original ancient greek text, I would recommend Lindybeige on Youtube. He points out that what Homer’s text does is simultaneously glorify and condemn war.
These are heroes! Fighting is the way to attain immortality. AT THE SAME TIME we are acutely aware of the tragedy. So many deaths – for what?
Lindybeige draws our attention to the death of Iphidames in Homers text as a great example of characterisation. The tragedy here is brought into sharp focus when this insignificant minor character (with barely a paragraph of space devoted to him) is given a rich background story. He is incidentally the first Trojan to die by Agamemnon. We hear about his life growing up in Thrace, his wedding and father attempting to persuade him not to leave to fight. The description of his death that follows is extremely melancholic; ‘he slept a sleep of bronze most piteously, far from his wedded wife’. We never hear from this person again.
Anyway, back to Madeline Miller. Both the condemnation and glorification of war are actually present in her book. Her description of Achilles’ fighting is glorious, she seems to revel in the beauty of his movements. However, Miller’s true focus is not on the heroic fighting or the epic battles, it’s on the simple relationship that altered the course of the war – Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus that was underplayed in the Brad Pitt movie. Why did Achilles go so mad with grief when Patroclus died? How could this relationship have meant so much to him that to seek revenge he abandoned his pride and continued fighting, turning the tide of the war? This relationship seems to have been infinitely more significant than Hollywood portrayed, and had a heavy bearing on the entire life of Achilles, before and after Troy. Miller made the bold choice of telling the story through the eyes of Patroclus and thereby shedding new light on the ancient text. Homer leaves it ambiguous as to wether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or not, however there are suggestions. In Millers book they are.
Certainly a character worth exploring then, and a relationship that can explain a lot of Achilles’ motivations and choices. Patroclus is described by Homer as always gentle. From his time growing in Pithia and the crucial friendship blooming, to his pivotal role at Troy.
He didn’t have any godlike abilities or an aptitude for fighting. He was largely ignored by the more important figures such as Agamemnon and Menelaus. At first he was only really noticed due to his relationship with Achilles. What did Achilles see in him then, to consider him a worthy companion?
Early on in the book Achilles is sent to train with the centaur Chiron on Mount Pelion. As the son of a goddess, he is expected to grow up to become a legendary hero. Thetis, his mother, is a sea nymph and detests Patroclus as an unworthy mortal. She does everything she can to separate the two. And yet Patroclus does not give up, and on discovering Achilles’ absence, runs nonstop to Pelion from Pitha to find him. This takes him a full day. The wise Chiron then allows him to stay, sensing I think, a unique kind of unwavering determination. Later on in the book, at Troy, Patroclus starts working in the medical tent in order to make a contribution to the war effort. In the course of his training with Chiron he is more interested in learning the healing arts than fighting. This is a very different version of masculinity.
In an interview I watched on Youtube Miller stated her great affection for Patroclus. An ordinary character who makes important choices, some of which alter the course of history. It is clear throughout the book he trying to make the world a better place, without seeking glory or immortality.