The Song of Achilles

by Madeline Miller

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Chapters 1–3 Summary and Analysis

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Chapter 1

Patroclus describes his family. He explains that his father, a king descended from kings, was frustrated by the post-wedding revelation that his wife, Patroclus’s mother, was mentally disabled. Also a disappointment to his father, Patroclus himself was small and weak in body. Referring to a memory from when he was five, he relates that his father hosted the Olympic Games. Achilles, son of King Peleus, won a footrace. Patroclus’s father told Patroclus that he should be like Achilles. This is Patroclus’s only full memory from his early childhood, except for one that he is not sure ever happened: being alone with his mother on the beach, skipping stones on the water to amuse her.

Chapter 2

At age nine, Patroclus is summoned to his father’s throne room. His father informs him that they will travel to present Patroclus as a suitor to Helen, the beautiful daughter of King Tyndareus. After a long journey, they arrive at a court full of tension. The greatest Greek heroes have come to compete for Helen’s hand in marriage, including Philoctetes, Menelaus, and Ajax. Hero after hero presents himself to the king, until Patroclus’s time comes. His father tells Tyndareus that although his son is a child, he himself will be the man of the court and treat Helen as queen, while also giving Tyndareus an impressive sum of gold. Tyndareus is unimpressed.

Odysseus, the prince of Ithaca, addresses the king as an observer, wondering how he will keep all these men from fighting each other once he chooses a groom for Helen. He offers a solution to this problem if Tyndareus will give him the prize he promised him. Letting Helen choose is Odysseus’s proposal, and Tyndareus accepts. At Odysseus’s suggestion, he makes all the suitors swear to support Helen’s chosen groom and defend him if anyone tries to take his bride. They must accept this promise in order to be considered, and they do. A priest sacrifices a goat to symbolize their commitment to this oath. Helen selects Menelaus, and the others honor their oath. Odysseus reveals that his promised prize was Tyndareus’s niece. The memory of this trip becomes blurred and distant in Patroclus’s mind.

Chapter 3

Patroclus is out in a field playing with a set of dice when another boy, the son of a nobleman in the kingdom, comes up and demands them. Fighting back, Patroclus shoves the other boy. The boy falls, hits his head on a rock, and dies. His father demands that Patroclus be exiled or killed as punishment. Exile is the best financial decision for the kingdom, so Patroclus’s father sends him to the court of King Peleus, father to Achilles.

Relating the story of Achilles’s parents, Patroclus describes how the gods offered the sea-nymph Thetis to Peleus as a prize for his piety but warned him that he would have to force himself on her, which he did. She gave birth to Achilles and stayed in Peleus’s court for the one year that the gods required. After that, she left and only ever returned to visit her son. 

When Patroclus arrives in Peleus’s court, Achilles greets him casually, and Patroclus becomes aware that he is not important in his new home. Haunted by visions of the boy he killed, Patroclus refuses to play with the many other boys Peleus is fostering and sleeps poorly at night after long days of military training.


This section sets up a circumstance that will be pivotal for the main events of the book: the greatest Greek heroes have sworn to support Menelaus if anyone should ever...

(This entire section contains 859 words.)

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try to take Helen from him. Without this oath, this story (and the story ofThe Iliad, of which this book is an adaptation) would never have taken place. Patroclus is a passive witness to this crucial moment in history, but he is able to perceive its significance and feel the charismatic draw Helen possesses for all the men present.

It also establishes Patroclus as a character through the portrayal of key moments in his life. A disappointment to his father from birth, Patroclus grows up knowing that he is inadequate as a prince. He is treated with formal respect but never actually respected for his own qualities. The only time that Patroclus, as a child, really defends himself, he accidentally commits murder and is exiled to a land where he does not even receive the formal respect due to a prince. Once in Phthia, he is unimportant except to the military goals of King Peleus.

These chapters also begin to lay the foundation for the relationship dynamic between Patroclus and Achilles. Finding Achilles beautiful and impressive, Patroclus understands his appeal but chafes against his own father’s statement about Achilles: “That is what a son should be.” When he meets Achilles again, as a foster son in the court of Achilles’s father, Peleus, a relaxed, casual Achilles treats him as totally unimportant. The section makes clear that Achilles will be a central character and that his relationship with Patroclus will be significant for the novel.


Chapters 4–6 Summary and Analysis