The Song of Achilles

by Madeline Miller

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Chapters 19–21 Summary and Analysis

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Chapter 19

The next morning, when it is time to leave Aulis, Patroclus wakes a dull-eyed Achilles, still shocked over Iphigenia’s murder. On the deck of the ship, Achilles practices combat restlessly, unresponsive to Patroclus’s attempts to cheer him up. Their fleet, together with that of Diomedes, sails from island to island for days as they make their way to Troy. Achilles asks Patroclus what it was like when he killed the boy by accident as a child. His father, he tells Patroclus, told him to think of the men he was to kill like animals. Iphigenia’s death, and his own reaction, make him doubt that he can kill. Though Patroclus tries to ease his concerns by telling him that the men he kills will be a threat to him, Achilles responds that Patroclus himself does not like violence under any circumstances. He asks if Patroclus will forgive him for the violence he must do. There will be nothing to forgive, says Patroclus, because Achilles cannot offend him.

The entire Greek fleet finally reunites at an island just off the coast of Troy. Waiting for them on the beach is the Trojan army, led by Hector. Agamemnon orders the fleet to hold position rather than landing. A Trojan on the beach aims an arrow to shoot at the Greeks, but Achilles effortlessly kills him with a thrown spear, even though the distance should have made this impossible. Cheers from the fleet encourage Achilles to keep throwing spears. Seizing a shield, he tells Patroclus to stand behind him. The ships sail closer to the beach, and arrows fly on both sides. When the Greek fleet makes land and the invasion officially begins, Hector orders his army to retreat behind the walls of Troy.

Chapter 20

The Greeks make camp on the Trojan beach. Achilles and the Phthian army are assigned the area farthest from the city of Troy and from the central gathering of the key commanders. On the way to camp there, Achilles and Patroclus greet Ajax, the huge warrior who would have had Achilles’s place as the best Greek soldier if Achilles had not been there.

Later, the kings meet in council, the first situation in which they are ranked by importance, creating the potential for offense or even mutiny. Achilles takes a seat in the prestigious front row, Patroclus with him, but no one objects. Discussing strategy, the kings argue about whether they should attempt diplomacy or attack right away. Agamemnon decides that they should raid the fields and towns around Troy, which provide the city with food, thereby weakening Troy’s position. In assigning locations in the structure of battle to the various kings, he effectively makes a public declaration of each king’s status within the army’s hierarchy. The Phthian army is assigned to a position of honor, and Achilles is pleased. Back at their camp, he and Patroclus discuss what it was like to kill the Trojans. Achilles neither thought at all nor feared anything during the fight, he tells Patroclus, because this is what he was born to do.

In the morning, Achilles marshals his best men for the raids. Speaking to them as a leader, he appears to Patroclus as a hero, remote from their playful and affectionate relationship. Afterward, he asks Patroclus to help him put his armor on. Patroclus agrees but feels reluctant to close Achilles up in the hard armor. Achilles kisses him goodbye. Patroclus goes to sleep, reassuring himself that Achilles will be safe because he will not kill Hector. Later, Achilles wakes Patroclus with his face close to the other...

(This entire section contains 1316 words.)

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young man’s. Patroclus is repulsed and horrified by the blood on Achilles, which he first fears is Achilles’s own. The woundless Achilles tells Patroclus that he killed twelve men. Angry at first, Patroclus then apologizes and lets Achilles describe the day’s fighting and the deaths he caused. This becomes a pattern over the days of raiding, Achilles relating each day’s violence to Patroclus, who tries to imagine it all as if it were a remote heroic story that happened to someone else, not his Achilles.

Chapter 21

As narrator, Patroclus explains the ritual of dividing up the day’s spoils, everything gained in the battle, among the Greek warriors. This event, too, is organized by status; the greatest warrior is supposed to have first pick. Agamemnon instead claims this privilege for himself, with Achilles second. One day, the spoils presented in the ritual include a young woman, a wordless message from Agamemnon that the soldiers will be permitted to keep young women they capture in their camp in order to rape and abuse them. Patroclus instinctively asks Achilles to claim this young woman, wanting to protect her. A surprised Achilles does so, to the annoyance of Agamemnon, who nevertheless allows it.

Back at their tent, the woman shies away from the two boys’ attempts to release her from her bonds. She seems to speak no Greek, so they cannot communicate that they don’t intend to harm her. Finally, Patroclus kisses Achilles in front of her in order to demonstrate that they do not intend sexual violence. Reluctantly, she allows Patroclus to cut her bonds and tend to her wounds. He takes her to a small private tent pitched for her use and leaves her to rest there.

When she comes to the door of her tent at midday, Patroclus introduces himself, and she tells him her name, Briseis. Over time, they get to know each other, and Patroclus teaches her Greek. As the raids go on without seeming to affect Troy’s military strategy, the men grow frustrated. Patroclus observes with horror the way they treat the women they have enslaved. Asking Achilles to save as many women as he can, he works together with Briseis to teach the women Greek and make them feel safe in their camp.


This section delves into the graphic reality of war. The author uses Patroclus’s reactions to portray the horror of bloodshed, slavery, and rape. Except for Patroclus and possibly Achilles, the other men seem to take these aspects of war for granted. Though unbothered by his own daily slaughters on the battlefield, Achilles yields to Patroclus’s urging to protect the young women from the other men. The reader receives little of Achilles’s own opinion about the treatment of women in the camp. However, the young hero does yield to Patroclus’s desire to protect the women and uses his power to help where he can. Though both Thetis and Odysseus have warned Patroclus that he should help Achilles discard his trusting and softhearted nature, in this section he does the exact opposite, pulling Achilles in the direction of pity and kindness.

The importance of status and rank within Greek society, and particularly in the military, comes to the foreground in this section. The Greek kings and princes operate in a world where maintaining one’s status, and raising it if possible, is vital to one’s honor and dignity. Any hint that a king or warrior is not being granted the status they deserve will certainly offend that person and may lead to feuds or open violence. As the presiding general, Agamemnon must manage these challenging social situations in a way that gives offense to none and proper recognition to all. In most cases, he does so adeptly, but his arrogance occasionally gets in his way, particularly in the case of dividing the spoils. This ritual recognizes military prowess as well as social status, meaning that Achilles should certainly have first choice, but Agamemnon takes that place for himself. Achilles does not protest, but he does annoy Agamemnon by requesting Briseis out of turn, before the general has had the chance to choose his prizes. This point of tension will return later in the story.


Chapters 16–18 Summary and Analysis


Chapters 22–24 Summary and Analysis