Homer’s Iliad is often regarded as a story about war, originated by the love between Paris and Helen of Troy. But according to American novelist Madeline Miller, that is not Iliad‘s most important relationship. Her first novel The Song of Achilles is a reinterpretation of the myth as a story of a love worth dying for.
Miller has been passionate about Greek mythology since her mother read the Iliad to her when she was a child. She studied Classics and writing her first novel took her ten years. Published in 2011 by Ecco Press, The Song of Achilles won an award the following year at the 17th Orange Prize for Fiction. It then became a success in 2021, partly due to positive reviewing on a TikTok video. Following this, in 2018 Miller wrote her second novel, Circe, that is an adaptation of the Odyssey. In 2021 the Italian publisher Sonzogno published her short story Galatea with illustrations by Ambra Garlaschelli.
From a different point of view
Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.Homer, Iliad, book 1
In the original epic poem, Achilles’ point of view leads the reader through the war. Modern film adaptations, such as Wolfgang Petersen‘s Troy, keep following this path. Miller, though, wanted to present a different point of view. Fascinated by minor character Patroclus and by the great impact he had on the Trojan War, she puts him in the center of the narrative. The story starts before Patroclus comes into the world, when his father, King of Locris, marries his mother.
My father was a king, and a son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and build like a bull, all shoulders. He married my mother when she was fourteen and sworn by a priestess to be fruitful.
When he is still a young boy, Patroclus accidentally kills the son of a nobleman. He arrives in Phthia as an exile: there he becomes the stepson of Peleus, father of Achilles. Patroclus feels a certain hostility to Achilles as he is a demigod, so perfect and so far from him. Yet, Achilles takes him under his wing and soon he becomes the prince’s favorite. Their friendship grows stronger, and turns into something deeper while they spend two years training with Chiron. The story is told from Patroclus’s point of view, he who chooses to stay by Achilles’ side in life and in death.
An epic prosa to reinterpret the myth
As the author underlined, the idea of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers comes from Plato. There are also hints at their feelings in the writings of Greek tragedy playwrights Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus (who speaks about the two heroes’ frequent kisses). In fact, the interpretation of their relationship as a romantic one was not only accepted but also fairly common in the ancient world. Achilles chooses Patroclus as his “therapon” and “hetairos“, meaning his comrade-in-arms, more than a brother, someone worth fighting with and dying for.
In ancient Greece, heroes conquer glory only when fighting in the open field, there for all to see. Yet it is not for glory that Achilles joins the fight again: it is only because Patroclus died, and he has no more reason to live. The war remains only in the background; the focus is on the feelings and private lives of the two lovers.
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.
So, as it happens in Matteo Rovere‘s Romulus, The Song of Achilles melds a legendary past with the coming-of-age of a hero.
In her review for The Guardian, Natalie Haynes underlines Miller’s prose is “more poetic than almost any translation of Homer”. Both the modern language and the first-person narration help readers feel empathy for Patroclus and give a new, fresh life to a legendary war, keeping their bond in the foreground. Through Patroclus’ voice, The Song of Achilles becomes an epic poem about a love worth living and dying for.