One of the oldest stories in the Western canon is retold from a fresh perspective in Madeline Miller’s debut novel.
I interviewed the author for the SLJ Teen Newsletter a few weeks ago, and I love the way her passion for the classics is reflected in her responses. I will share just two of them here.
Why did you decide to tell Achilles’ story from Patroclus’s point of view, and why did you choose for them to become lovers?
To be honest, having Patroclus as my narrator didn’t feel like a choice! From the moment I sat down at the computer, it was always his voice that came out; I never even considered any other option. He is a singular figure in Greek mythology, the only hero ever called “gentle” in the Iliad, and the only person Achilles truly cares about. In fact, it was Achilles’s passionate grief over Patroclus’s death that originally intrigued me. I wanted to know more about this man whose loss could cause Achilles such despair.
Achilles’s reaction to losing Patroclus was also at the heart of my choice to make the two lovers. It wasn’t just the depth of Achilles’s grief, but how he grieves-embracing the body and refusing to give it up for burial. To me, that spoke of a relationship that was romantic and intimate, as well as companionable. It also helped that interpreting them as lovers was a long-standing tradition in the ancient world-Plato and Aeschylus both believed that they were. So I felt like I was on firm scholarly, as well as emotional, ground.
What is the significance of the title and the presence of music?
One of my favorite parts about Achilles’s legend is the fact that, aside from his skills as a warrior, he is also a beautiful musician. I have always found this a tantalizing and tragic path not taken—Achilles as a creator, instead of destroyer. Throughout the novel, Patroclus fights to help Achilles keep that human, creative side—to be the man, not just the warrior. It is also a reminder that none of us are just one thing. There is always more complexity beneath.
The title is also a reference to the Iliad, which literally means “the song of Troy.” I saw my story as Patroclus’s song to Achilles.
*MILLER, Madeline. The Song of Achilles. 378p. Ecco. 2012. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9787-0-06-206061-7. LC 2011535381.
Adult/High School–In Miller’s thrilling debut novel, Patroclus retells the events of The Iliad, focusing on the all-too-short life of his companion, Achilles. By concentrating on these two young men and their tragic lives and love, the author rejuvenates the epic legend and makes it accessible to a contemporary audience. Patroclus and Achilles meet as children, and again, a few years later, when Patroclus is exiled and taken in by Achilles’s father. They fall in love as teens, while studying with the centaur Chiron in the mountains. Half-god Achilles is everything Patroclus is not: beautiful, talented, charismatic, an extraordinary (if untested) warrior, and accomplished musician. Patroclus never quite understands why he is chosen, but is grateful to live by Achilles’s side. Of course, the Trojan War determines their fates, but it is not the central driving force of this novel. Miller is more interested in fleshing out the inner lives of her protagonists, and the women involved in their story. Not Helen, who remains a distant beauty. Rather Briseis, the girl Achilles claims as a war prize who then falls in love with gentle Patroclus, making him wonder what his life could have been like had he never fallen in love with a half-God. And the goddess Thetis, Achilles’s mother, who is plagued by foreknowledge of her son’s early death and jealousy of his love. The landscapes of Phthia and Mount Pelion, the beaches of Troy, the Trojan siege, Odysseus, Agamemnon, and gritty battle scenes highlighting Achilles’s other-worldly physical skill all are fresh and exciting. The Song of Achilles will beguile new and familiar audiences equally.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City