Last Updated on April 2, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722
The Song of Achilles, an adaptation of the Iliad and other stories surrounding the Trojan War, provides the reader with an unfamiliar perspective on these tales—that of Achilles’s lover, Patroclus. The Iliad gives little attention to Patroclus except at the end of his life, and other adaptations, such as Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, are not particularly sympathetic to him. Madeline Miller takes the reader into Patroclus’s inner life, showing how the proud Greek heroes and the vicious war they fight appear in the eyes of a gentle man whose strongest motivation is love. Taking her time over the years of Patroclus and Achilles’s childhood, the author establishes their loving relationship. She gives the reader an innocent, trusting Achilles to appreciate before turning him into a ruthless warrior. Patroclus’s experience with the young Achilles makes this transformation vivid and its impact visceral.
The brutality of war and the way it grinds away at human connection is foregrounded in the novel, particularly in the story of Briseis. At first, Achilles does not believe he can kill a human being. Even after he becomes accustomed to slaughtering people, his connection with Patroclus still calls on his pity to help him save the women. Ultimately, however, war and politics harden Achilles, making him the kind of person who would allow the rape of someone under his protection for his own political gain. Patroclus stands out among the Greeks for remaining softhearted and caring, and it is this care for others that governs his actions as the drama between Achilles and Agamemnon unfolds.
The work also offers pointed commentary on the effects of homophobia, as Patroclus suffers his entire life because everyone scorns him for being Achilles’s lover. Thetis despises him, and the soldiers look down on him. Even when they are both dead, homophobia keeps Patroclus away from his lover, in the form of Pyrrhus’s horror that his father might have loved another man. The author portrays the brutal effect that social expectations of heterosexuality can have on a homosexual couple, whether in ancient Greece or in an analogous contemporary environment. Similarly, the novel examines the oppression and powerlessness of women in a world where they are used as political devices or sources of pleasure, not treated as fellow human beings by most of the men they interact with.
Through skillful use of simile, a literary device that is also central to the Iliad, the author grounds the novel in the daily life of ancient Greece, bringing details of Patroclus’s world into these comparisons. Another crucial literary device in the novel is foreshadowing, sometimes combined with similes, as when Patroclus describes Achilles’s ship as “sleek and slim as a knifepoint, meant to cut the sea,” foreshadowing the grief that Achilles’s journey to Troy will bring his mother, the sea nymph Thetis. The foreshadowing sometimes also takes the form of stories told about mythical heroes who bear similarities to Achilles. Achilles never understands the point of the stories, but the reader does, especially if the reader is familiar with the Iliad and with Greek mythology.
However, Miller is also writing for readers who come to the novel unaware of the source material. She tells a full story in its own right, framing the events that a student of classics would be expecting as if they were as surprising and shocking as they would be to someone experiencing them firsthand. The first-person narration in Patroclus’s voice presents that perspective, someone to whom all of this is brand new, in spite of the prophecies that govern events. Establishing the world of the story through illustrative similes and placing key Greek myths as stories-within-stories also shows that Miller has designed her work for a wider audience than those who already know what is going to happen.
The novel is powerful because it makes a well-known ancient story contemporary without ever removing it from its setting. Familiar emotions and relationships emerge in the carefully rendered characters, and the epic events around them are brought to a human scale, as Miller shows how the people involved actually experience them: their perceptions, their emotions, and their expectations. In spite of the divine forces that shape their lives, the characters come across as human beings rather than as distant figures of myth.
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