The Song of Achilles

October 28, 2014

Years ago, when I was very young, I remember sitting in a tree far out in the woods behind my home and reading The Illiad. For some three thousand years now, in a line that stretches back to the early Greeks, predating almost everything we now know about the world, this book has followed us. And there is something profound in the fact that, during all that time, I am probably but one in a long and unbroken line that has committed not just to such an old story, but to reading it in a tree, far away from the concerns of the world. It is simply so old, that shared experience seems inevitable.

Ajax carries the body of Achilles. Get your head out of the gutter...

Ajax carries the body of Achilles. Get your head out of the gutter…

The story of the Greeks who launched themselves on a campaign of murder, glory, and petty vengeance has been retold uncountable times. It has been spun-off and sold out by everyone from Euripides to Virgil to Wolfgang Petersen. But we keep coming back to it – the deaths of Patroclus, Achilles, Hector, and Sarpedon are replayed again and again as our civilization and species translates itself from one generation to the next. And such translations are necessary. The events that unfolded during the Trojan War are now so hopelessly muddled by history and tradition, that we moderns struggle to make sense of the events that we read. The landscape they reveal is drier and more alien. These are men driven by causes and forces that seem remote from our reality. But there is something eternal in the archetypes that Homer gave us; something that cries out to be retained.

Traditionally, keeping the story fresh and alive seems to require ever higher budgets for oiling up musclebound actors and for hair removal for the women who will pretend to sleep with them (with all due respect to Mr. Pitt – I’m sure he got waxed when he played the son of Thetis). Author Madeline Miller overcomes this hurdle in perhaps the simplest way that she could have: her Trojan War is really about the love between Patroclus and Achilles. The relationship that unfolds between them is touching, and drives the whole story that surrounds it. There is nothing particularly “sexy” in it, but the way it shapes them and reimagines the impact that their commitment to each other had on the events of the story is compelling and brilliant.


Chiron taught Achilles everything he knew. He was also hung like a horse (there’s a terrifying mental image…)

The Trojan Wars were a hard and unforgiving conflict though. Here are the same senseless charges that unfold in the same needless deaths. Achilles, fated to lead the Greeks to victory against the Trojans at the cost of his own life, squares off against the same brutish Agamemnon who remains determined to drag the mighty warrior down – or perhaps to force him to do his duty. The gods of ancient Greece, while seldom involved directly, are given a life and a role in the councils of the various kings. And every misfortune is considered through their fickle filter. But the world is kept comprehensible through the tenderness and compassion of Patroclus and Achilles, the reader’s touchstone. We come back to them and always find something we can recognize in their relationship; what Plato once referred to as the model of romanic love.

Of course, this love also compounded the suffering of the war. Achilles, so it is believed, could have ended the conflict at any time and won his glory. But for Patroclus, perhaps he would have. It isn’t until Patroclus is killed by Hector while leading the Myrmidons in Achilles stead, that the greatest of the Greeks finally fulfills the role that fate set aside for him. And it is a tribute to Ms. Miller’s storytelling that we find ourselves wishing that the two had stayed together in some quiet sanctuary somewhere instead of chasing after Achilles’ birthright.

This is the real charm to Ms. Miller’s book. The Song of Achilles tells an old story in a refreshing way. Her approach to the story of the Trojan War might not hit everyone’s favorite buttons, but the characters she draws out of the fog of myth are once again made back into men, even if they had been born of the gods.


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