Teaching with ‘The Song of Achilles’

A few months ago I wrote a post here on teaching with Madeline Miller’s novel, Circe. There I pointed out that the novel artfully creates real, multifaceted human beings out of larger-than-life mythological characters, and that it challenges readers to consider how the position of the storyteller influences the narrative. Though I am personally still partial to Circe, Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles (2012), offers equally many avenues for teaching Greek myth from new perspectives and for drawing out topics that are often obscured by traditional teaching methods. As she did with Circe, Miller has stayed faithful to the received narratives of Achilles and Patroclus without following them submissively, putting new twists on old stories and injecting them with poignant, powerful first-person perspective that students will respond to.

One of the most valuable aspects of The Song of Achilles is the extended look at Patroclus’ and Achilles’ early life, and how seriously Miller takes the challenges and emotions of childhood. Childhood is a part of life in antiquity that is largely lost to us. Most ancient biographies of both legendary and historical figures give us only one or two interesting anecdotes of childhood and adolescence, and those are usually only included to make a point about character development or continuity. Miller has taken the few childhood stories we have of Achilles and Patroclus and from them crafted a beautifully sensitive depiction of what it might have been like if a guileless prince destined for greatness befriended an exiled prince with PTSD.

The first seventeen years of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ lives — the toy horses they played with, their swirling emotions, their fears, their dreams of the future — take up the first half of the book. If you’d asked me six months ago what I knew about Achilles’ life pre-Trojan War, I could have given you a paragraph, tops, and I couldn’t have told you a thing about Patroclus’ early life. Miller’s version of their youth opens a great opportunity to talk to your students about what limited sources on childhood in antiquity we do have, and to discuss with them what it might have been like to grow up as a boy, girl, pauper, prince, exile, etc. in antiquity.

The “were they or weren’t they” debate around Achilles and Patroclus is as old as the Iliad itself, even making an appearance in Plato’s Symposium — though the apparent rarity of sexual relationships between adult males in ancient Greece made this Homeric pair worth talking about, such relationships were not unheard of and probably much more common than our sources let on. The ancient Greeks did not think in terms of straightness and queerness the way we do, but using that as an excuse to sidestep discussion of Achilles and Patroclus’ potentially romantic/sexual relationship does a great disservice to our students both academically and emotionally.

In a fantastic talk at the last CAMWS meeting in Lincoln, Hannah Clarke reminded us to make straightness just as ambiguous as queerness in classical texts. By this she meant that when students reading the Iliad ask if Patroclus and Achilles were gay, professors will often ambiguate the queerness latent in the text with a response along the lines of, “Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, we don’t know, so there’s not much we can say about it, let’s move on,” while many characters’ straightness is never called into question (even when it probably should be).

Miller’s depiction of Achilles and Patroclus provides a wonderful antidote to that problem by landing firmly on the side of “they were” and mostly avoiding dichotomies of hetero- vs homosexuality. Miller’s Patroclus tells us that other boys take each other as lovers in addition to or instead of girls, though he admits that he and Achilles are unusual for continuing their affair into adulthood. Achilles’ straightness is questioned by other Greeks — when he claims Briseis as his prize, Diomedes grunts, “Didn’t know you even liked girls” — but his masculinity is never questioned, nor is his love for Patroclus ever characterized by other Greeks as unnatural. The destabilizing factor in the relationship is not the fact that they are both men, but the fact that one member of the relationship is a demigod, and one prophesied to be “best of the Greeks” to boot.

Miller does not shy away from the harsh realities of antiquity whose echoes ring through our contemporary society and politics. The cost of war and violence, both in terms of loss of life and the mental damage to survivors and perpetrators of violence, loom large in the novel. Where the Iliad catalogs interesting wounds and a massive body count, The Song of Achilles makes war personal: after killing another boy, Patroclus can’t sleep for almost a year because he sees the boy’s face every time he closes his eyes. At Troy, Patroclus recalls his desperate struggles in the medical tents to save the ill and wounded, his mounting grief as his friends and former patients are killed in battle. At one point Achilles comments to Patroclus that he doesn’t know how Patroclus remembers them all; the Greeks all look the same to Achilles and it’s easier if they just all remember who he is. Achilles’ callous distance is shocking juxtaposed to Patroclus’ tender care, and even more shocking when we realize that this impersonality, thinking in terms of nameless body counts, is how so many of us (especially in the US) deal with war.

At the beginning of the war, Patroclus is indignant at the kings’ raids that target farmers and innocent country folk rather than the Trojans themselves, but concludes that since he already decided to support Achilles, he can’t start listening to his conscience now. Patroclus watches Achilles become a different person in combat, one who fights and kills mechanically, who shows no mercy. At the end of each day of fighting, Patroclus lets Achilles talk about the killing in all its gory detail because he understands that by listening, he can release Achilles from it and “make him himself again.” Reading this version of the Trojan War in tandem with the Iliad will not only deepen general class discussions of warfare and its costs, but will give our student veterans in particular a more multifaceted, more powerful literary approach to horrors and hardships that they themselves have faced. And all our students who have dealt with death, veterans or not, will find a piece of this narrative that they can relate to.

Etruscan relief, 2nd c. BCE. Menelaus and Meriones lift Patroclus’ corpse onto a cart (Wikimedia Commons)

Women’s issues are secondary in this novel, as may be expected in a story focused on Achilles and Patroclus, but Miller’s brief sidebars offer us opportunities to spark class discussions about women in antiquity and to draw parallels with contemporary life. Since nearly all women’s experiences in the novel are (realistically) traumatic, this will require a fair amount of preparation both for the instructor individually and as a whole class, especially in terms of setting boundaries on discussions so that student survivors are not triggered without warning and everyone feels safe in class.

Near the beginning of the novel, Patroclus recounts the story of how Achilles’ parents were married: the gods allowed Peleus to rape the nymph Thetis; after suffering such trauma, Thetis was forced to marry her rapist and to give birth to his child conceived by rape. Though she returns to her home and family at the earliest opportunity, she is tied to Peleus’ house forever. As current political maneuverings on abortion law have made clear, this kind of experience is not safely in the past, but remains a terrifying reality for many women.

Miller’s Patroclus is frank about sexual harassment of serving women that he witnesses in Peleus’ halls, and about the divvying-up and rape of conquered Trojan women who serve as bed slaves for the victorious Greeks. Patroclus urges Achilles to claim as many girls as possible as his war prizes in order to spare them from the other men; their corner of camp becomes a sort of haven for captive women with Briseis presiding as a sort of aunt over all. It looks idyllic to our narrator Patroclus, and Miller makes him out to be almost a sort of proto-feminist ally. But there is room for us as readers to push back on this narrative; our students will likely recognize that though these captured women are better off with Patroclus and Achilles, they are still captive slaves.

This novel, like Circe, offers a prime opportunity to discuss with your students how different versions of the same story can paint different heroes and erase different voices. The Achilles we know from the Iliad is a proud, raging, blood-lusty warrior; by letting someone new tell the story, Miller turns over the rock and shows us the many facets of Achilles’ character that have been buried in the dirt. By letting Patroclus tell his version of the story, we get to see Achilles the goofy young boy, the musician, the devoted son.

However, Patroclus’ version of the story also glosses over terrible actions and major character flaws. Miller’s Patroclus depicts an idealized version of Achilles, one much more palatable to modern sensibilities. In this version, Achilles’ honesty and forthrightness is shocking: in a world where men fight with words as much as with spears, Achilles says exactly what he means and is surprised when others don’t. Patroclus makes Achilles the champion of the camp women by placing all the mistreatment of captive women onto the other Greeks; Patroclus deliberately and explicitly swallows his own conscience in order to support Achilles’ actions in the countryside raids; Achilles remains a tender lover and fierce protector of Patroclus on the rare occasions Patroclus joins him on the battlefield.

Miller’s Patroclus almost justifies Achilles’ violence by lauding the beautiful way Achilles fights and kills; though Patroclus is distressed at the way Achilles treats human beings as pawns for the sake of his own honor, he still portrays Achilles as a/the hero of the story and supports him unfailingly. But perhaps your students will find that despite singing the song of Achilles to Thetis at the close of the novel, Patroclus is the real hero of the story. As a counselor and physician, he represents the necessary but often unsung heroes/victims of war; he works the system to protect as many captive women as he can from sexual violence; his unwavering support of Achilles is noble, but illustrative of the way love can conflict with our better judgement.

Though Miller’s Achilles practices drills and is capable of killing as a youth, he never sees death until the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and not until the war begins in earnest do negative changes to his character and actions begin to surface: our intimate acquaintance with pre-war Achilles in the novel shows us that he was not always the rage-filled Achilles Homer sang of. If he had never gone to Troy, would he have remained gentle and peaceful, composing songs and fighting only with thin air? By showing us what Achilles was, juxtaposed to what he became in war, Miller offers a stringent commentary on the mental toll of warfare. By showing us Achilles and Patroclus’ devotion to each other, steadfast from Mount Pelion to Skyros to the shores of Troy, Miller offers us a moving story of truly unconditional love. Homer is beloved and important, but to nitpick over the changes Miller makes to this story is to miss the point that stories look different depending on whose eyes you look through. The Song of Achilles is a skillful, poignant retelling of a story I thought had been told in every way possible. Discussing it alongside the Iliad will enhance class discussions regarding not just the Trojan War story itself, but also the flexibility of myth, the ethics of war, and the advantage of the storyteller.

2 thoughts on “Teaching with ‘The Song of Achilles’

Add yours

  1. I think Sara Hales-Brittain has missed the point by quite a bit. I’m not at all certain Miller intends Patroclus to be a reliable narrator, the way Hales-Brittain seems to think.


    1. Hi there — this very issue regarding how much we can trust Patroclus and whether we agree with his side of the story is what makes the book so great for teaching! Your comment relates to what I say near the end of this post about how Patroclus is a very pro-Achilles narrator and there’s plenty of room for readers to push back against him on that.


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