Song of Achilles Themes
The main themes in The Song of Achilles are reputation and pride, political and social expectations, and fate and divine power.
- Reputation and pride: Matters of reputation, pride, and desire for fame drive the novel’s plot, in particular the disastrous dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon.
- Political and social expectations: While Achilles fulfills the expectation that he will become a great military hero, he and Patroclus are expected to end their romantic relationship.
- Fate and divine power: In the novel, prophecies are infallible and unavoidable, and the gods dictate the outcome of major events.
Last Updated on April 2, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
Reputation and Pride
The novel centers on the issue of reputation and the pride that comes with the desire for fame, particularly the belief that one deserves that fame and is meant to have it. Because he is prophesied to be the best of the Greeks, Achilles is singled out as special from his childhood on, carrying a reputation he has not yet personally earned. He goes to Troy because he cannot stand the idea of not earning fame, and he is treated like a legend from the moment he comes to take command of the Phthian army. He was born to be a warrior of great renown, and he finds his purpose in earning that renown.
His obsession with his reputation, however, makes him proud, resentful of Agamemnon’s power over the Greeks. Agamemnon is also proud and concerned with preserving his reputation. From Achilles’s refusal to kneel at Aulis to Agamemnon’s taking of Briseis and its consequences, the two men’s pride and obsession with their reputation creates conflict between them over and over again. Neither Agamemnon nor Achilles is willing to yield in the matter of Briseis, because they are proud. Each believes that he will look weak and foolish if he yields to the other. The conflict of Achilles’s pride and Agamemnon’s pride leads to the book’s violent climax and the three deaths it concludes with.
The pride of other Greek warriors is also very much in evidence throughout the book. Patroclus is an unusual Greek in that he neither cares for his reputation nor has much pride; rather, he is motivated by love and compassion. It is this unique quality that makes him a point of vulnerability for Achilles.
Political and Social Expectations
The political and social expectations of the Greek world pervade the book. As a prince, Patroclus is expected to be impressive, and his father takes the first opportunity to get rid of him because he is not. Helen’s suitors, including Patroclus, incur political expectations by swearing to protect her. Achilles is expected to act the part of a legend and to take command of the Phthian army when he is summoned. He is also expected to kneel and swear oaths to Agamemnon, as a Greek prince serving under him, but he refuses, leading to a lasting rift with the Greek general. The political hierarchy affects everything that happens among the Greek kings, from who sits where at council to how they divide the spoils of war. Jostling for status within the hierarchy is what brings Agamemnon and Achilles into opposition. They both believe that they should be first.
Social expectations are also a painful problem for Achilles and Patroclus, in that Greek men were expected to abandon sexual relationships with other males once both parties became adults. The other Greeks judge Achilles for keeping Patroclus with him, considering their relationship a disgrace to the famous warrior. Pyrrhus’s disgust for Achilles’s connection with Patroclus even keeps the two apart in death for a time.
Fate and Divine Power
Greek myths often center on prophecies, and the novel reflects their importance. From the simple prophecy that Achilles will be the best of the Greeks to the horrifying prophecy that he must die in Troy if he fights there, prophecies are taken as absolutely true and inevitable. Achilles avoids Hector at great cost, even though it affects Achilles’s reputation, because he knows that the great Trojan warrior must die before him, so Achilles cannot kill him. In the novel as in Greek myths, prophecies are sometimes impenetrable until it is too late—no one knows who “the best of the Myrmidons” is until Patroclus dies—but they are never avoidable. Characters act with the assumption that any prophecy is accurate, because these prophecies come from the gods.
The Greek gods, powerful but not infallible beings with their own feelings and concerns, influence great events in the ancient Greek world according to their own inclinations. Thetis tries to protect her son from his fate, but she cannot do so, because she is not the only god. Artemis and Apollo, children of Zeus, are stronger gods, with the power to stop the winds and cause plagues, and their actions govern the most significant events in the novel. The gods and fate are central to Greek myths and, therefore, to works that are based on them.
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