Department of Greek & Latin

The Song of Achilles

Hamutal Minkowich

Ianthe Cox-Wilmott, a former UCL student (MA in Reception of the Classical World 2010) is currently working at Bloomsbury. Ianthe got in touch and kindly arranged this interview. Madeline Miller's novel The Song of Achilles is published by Bloomsbury (2012).

Achilles’ libido has a long and rich history of reception. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles interestingly takes this up from the point of view of Patroclus as Achilles’ lover. I met with her to discuss her debut novel, which was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. Miller holds a BA and MA in Classics from Brown University and studied at the Dramaturgy Department at the Yale School of Drama. She currently teaches Greek, Latin and Shakespeare in high school.

Song of Achilles

Miller’s portrayal of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles in explicitly erotic terms has been received with great enthusiasm but as she told me has raised some eyebrows too. It seems that Homer’s Achilles-Patroclus relationship continues to be dominated by a “did they or didn’t they” binary question. This is also evident in much accountant-like scholarly adducing of evidence for and against the physical dimension of this relationship.  

In The Song of Achilles, Miller constructs a privileged space within which Patroclus and Achilles grow up together, fall in love and become a couple: “I chose to work through a lyric mode with what I see as essentially lyric subject-matter,” she says. “I was interested in all the other things that Achilles could be, in the possibilities and hints that we see in Homer and in the many mentions of Patroclus’ tenderness. I also wanted to focus on how Achilles’ life dissolves, that is, on Patroclus’ death.”

Miller’s novel valorizes not only homoerotic passion but also male vulnerability. Achilles is allowed to waver; he wants to be a hero, but not just yet. Miller’s Thetis, a cruel and distant mother, makes Achilles look more like a victim than a future hero. The Song of Achilles also develops the therapōn role of the Homeric Patroclus. Miller’s Patroclus does what he cannot do in Homer. He dislikes fighting and has no talent for it, deciding to heal the sick instead of going into daily battle. The novel creates for the two heroes a kind of conventionalized, near-normative existence as a monogamous couple. Achilles and Patroclus have a home life, where Patroclus tends the wounded, runs the household, takes care of Briseis, while Achilles returns at the end of the day with bloodied hands.

Miller’s work on the novel began during her BA at Brown, when she co-directed a college production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. “It’s sometimes hard to trace influence directly. But I certainly felt inspired by Shakespeare’s passionate approach to the story, and his bold handling of the characters.” Shakespeare’s play makes explicit the homoerotic bond between the two heroes, but it is also a play set in a distorted universe. As Miller explains, “One of the things which I think [Shakespeare] is doing is taking the tradition of homoeroticism between Achilles and Patroclus and removing it from its idealized ancient contexts.  What would it be like if Achilles and Patroclus were actually lovers in [Shakespeare’s] corrupt Greek army?”

In Troilus and Cressida we witness social and ethical breakdown that is not redeemed through tragic recognition on the part of the protagonists. Shakespeare’s play pathologizes sexuality and human nature, which licenses a freer and more open exploration of homoeroticism. But through its satirical mode the play also affirms a homoerotic model of desire, which Miller discussed in a recent essay for The Royal Shakespeare Company's 2012 production of Troilus and Cressida: “Shakespeare drops his bomb in the third act [TAC iii.3], when Patroclus gives an astonishing explanation for why the Greek generals think Achilles isn’t fighting:  “They think my little stomach to the war, and your great love to me restrains you thus.”  It is an idea which remakes Pindar, Aeschylus and Homer in a single stroke, brilliantly merging the homoerotic bond with the male-female love plot.  For a moment we glimpse another play entirely: a story of two men in love, one who is the world’s best warrior, and one who has little stomach for it.”

Miller’s novel takes up this possibility. As such the model of masculinity and sexuality in The Song of Achilles is also inevitably an engagement with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004). “It was just incredible how they had to make Patroclus a younger cousin of Achilles [in Troy]”, Miller says. “They established a close kinship link between them, so that there wouldn’t be any possibility of an erotic dimension to Achilles’ feelings.” Troy deprived Patroclus of any depth as a character, but created its own plot line for Briseis, ensuring that she spent much of the film in the tent of a heterosexually active Achilles. Briseis’ emotional attachment to Brad Pitt’s Achilles was a very conventional form of romanticized, heterosexual female masochism. 

Miller on the other hand keeps outing Achilles and Patroclus throughout her novel. Her focus on the intimacy of the two heroes creates in positive terms what Shakespeare’s play suggests. Given the inability of Hollywood to do what Miller did, we discussed the ways in which her novel is relevant to contemporary politics of gender and sexuality, particularly in view of the recent “legitimate rape” episode, which became one of the highlights of the current U.S. presidential election campaign. Rape in its many forms (legitimate and otherwise) is not unfamiliar in the Iliad but even in the Iliad it is not at all unproblematic. If in 2012 sexuality is determined by and through the terms of male heterosexual power, perhaps one should beware of too complacent a reading of Homer. Miller’s anti-war reading of the Iliad is all too aware of the problematic aspect of heroic self-assertion. Her Achilles is human, at least more so than the Homeric Achilles, who makes murder look so beautiful. Miller told me about the excitement of reading mythology as a child, “But when you study these texts you have to deal the dark and terrible side of these stories.” 

The Homeric Achilles, in whom passionate love and murder are intimately connected, exerts a powerful fascination precisely because of this duality. Thus the aesthetic and erotic response to Achilles is extremely loaded. Even in antiquity, his erōs is a special case, larger than life and raging beyond death. Achilles has a similarly disturbing afterlife in modernity. Hölderlin’s frustration with the limits of modernity aestheticized Achilles as the enfant gaté of nature, full of Löwenkraft, a creature of infinity. Even more problematic is Nietzsche’s aesthetic of the Dionysian and his admiration for the splendid blond beast, uncorrupted and unfettered by modern, slavish morality. Modern, psychoanalytically inclined receptions of Achilles have emphasized his lack of limits as an irreducibly libidinal agent, construing him in terms of extreme narcissism.

Miller’s use of Patroclus as the narrator is interesting because it explores Achilles less as a hero and more as an isolated misfit. Through Patroclus’ eyes, Achilles is approached from a position of relative parity, which was why she chose to make the two heroes age peers. “Despite his secondary social status in the Iliad, Patroclus speaks to Achilles with a shocking force and intimacy—as an emotional equal, if not a social one.  I wanted to push back against the reading of one being the other’s ‘male varlet.’”

In The Song of Achilles, Patroclus is not Achilles’ “masculine whore” as he is in Shakespeare.  However, Miller’s Patroclus is still in the difficult position of loving a creature like Achilles, who belongs nowhere and cannot be contained by any social structure. Miller’s Patroclus is in love with what will destroy him, but as he says when he first sees Achilles, “How could one resent losing to such beauty?” The love for such a creature that is caught between the human and the divine is only possible beyond the limits of humanity, that is, in death.