“The Song of Achilles” is Ruining My Life

Note: Massive spoilers for Madeline Miller‘s novel “The Song of Achilles” ahead, but also, the “Iliad” is about three thousand years old, so I’m not spoiling that much. To all the classicists who weep over my garbage analysis of Homer’s epic, please know that I happily defer to your wisdom. Feel free to educate me in the comment section. Still, for the purposes of this article, I will be talking about my interpretation of the events. I’m sure there’s a ton of nuance I’m missing out on, so please bear with me as I try to cobble a few sentences together.  

I had plans for this week. First, I had several works in progress to research and then write. I have an unfinished book about zoology to read. At work, I’m staffed on a high-maintenance and technically challenging client that demands my full mental concentration. But unfortunately, I cannot work on any of that stuff because every time I sit to focus on one thing, my mind strays to:

‘I have done it,’ she says. At first I do not understand. But then I see the tomb, and the marks she has made on the stone. A C H I L L E S, it reads. And beside it, P A T R O C L U S.

‘Go,’ she says. ‘He waits for you.’

In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood like a hundred golden urns pouring out of the sun.

Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

For the poor souls who are unfamiliar, I am directly quoting the last lines of Madeline Miller‘s debut novel “The Song of Achilles.” It is a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of Patroclus, the man who loved the warrior Achilles. The book was initially released in 2011, and while it did well, it exploded in popularity in the last year thanks to a few posts on TikTok. If this sounds similar to how “Ice Planet Barbarians” became popular, then it is, but that’s where the similarities end.  

This was exactly the same emotional journey I went on

If you were a socially anxious child who escaped to literature to avoid dealing with the crushing realities of life, then liking Greek mythology was an essential part of your identity. I had the added benefit of being ethnically Greek, so I felt an intense need to prove myself and my knowledge. So it’s been a part of my identity, although that portion ebbs and flows over time.

When I was 10, I read “Inside the Walls of Troy” by Clemence McLaren, which fundamentally shaped how I thought of the Trojan War. That book is told from two perspectives: Helen, aka “the face that launched a thousand ships,” aka the reason for the war, and Cassandra, a Trojan princess with the gift of prophecy. I appreciate that although the story was intended for younger readers, McLaren tried to inform her readers of the complexities and nuances of war. No side was all good or all bad – they were just people trying to survive.

I remember reading the story and hating Paris, the lazy, cowardly prince who stole Helen from her husband and sparked the epic, grueling war. I remember noble Hector, the oldest son of King Priam and the prince of Troy, and how he bravely fought to save his homeland from invading warriors. And I vaguely remember Achilles, the brutal monster who slew Hector and then dragged his body behind his chariot. Supposedly, Achilles was driven to this disrespectful act because Hector killed his buddy, Patroclus.

I never liked Achilles. I thought he was an a*****e. In one of the anthologies I read as a child, I distinctly remember the image of Achilles lashing Hector to his chariot and dragging him around the walls of Troy. Such was Achilles’ thirst for revenge. King Priam watched impotently, and Queen Hecuba shrieked as Achilles desecrated Hector’s corpse for days. I read all that and thought, “Ew, what the f**k?”

I also thought, “All this for a friend?”

An image of Achilles and Patroclus locked in what appears to be a romantic embrace.  The image is titled "Achilles and Patroclus."
Really good friends, per this article about epic friendships

I never understood what could drive Achilles to such an act of brutality, but I always thought the “he killed my friend in battle” excuse was weak. I love my friends, but if they were killed by enemy soldiers in the line of duty, I doubt I would hunt that soldier down and then drive around with his corpse tied to the back of my Prius. It wasn’t like Hector stalked and murdered Patroclus in cold blood while the latter was nursing a baby bird back to health. Patroclus was a soldier in the Greek army, and they were at war. It seems like “death at the hands of the enemy” is to be expected.

Achilles was the obvious antagonist. He dragged Hector’s corpse through the sand in front of his screaming mother because his “friend” got killed in the line of duty. That’s not cool, dude.

I don’t like the 2004 movie “Troy,” but I appreciate the film’s attempts to humanize the character. Brad Pitt was well-cast as the demigod. I was even super into his romance with Briseis (which led to me reading the lousy book “Daughter of Troy“). However, I was much less into the character Patroclus, upgraded to “cousin” in this version.

What a beautiful scene in an otherwise dumb movie

If you watch the movie “Troy,” there is a fabulous fight scene between Hector and Achilles. Achilles has learned that Hector killed Patroclus and vows revenge. Although I think the movie is kind of silly, I have to admit that the scene of the two men preparing for battle, and their resulting fight, is beautifully choreographed and filmed. The men two fight like they’re in a dance, and you soon see that Hector is no match for Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks. The resulting battle is like watching a beloved underdog fight the heavyweight champion. I was conflicted about who should win. Hector is a brave and honorable man, but Achilles looked fine as hell in that leather mini skirt. The story continues as it always does. Achilles kills Hector, then drags his body behind his chariot. And for what? Patroclus, the most beloved cousin, is still dead.

It then leads to the next question, “What do we do with this guy?” Once Hector has died, his fate is uncertain. Achilles eventually relents and lets King Priam have his son’s body back, but then there’s an air of uncertainty. What should the story do with Achilles now that his friend/cousin/whatever is gone? Whether he’s a hero or an antagonist, all that is left for him is his most untriumphant death (there are some other events that proceed his death, but I rarely see those portrayed). In the 2004 film, and in most stories, he’s killed by freaking Paris, of all people. Someone else is promoted to the greatest of all Greeks. 

I have felt this way for years. There was a sense of melancholy for a lost city because there was so much pain, and for what? Well, to be fair, the Trojan War is one of the greatest stories of all time. And some of the mortal men who fought in that war have been immortalized in literature and song. Some of those people live in the constellations. It’s been about three thousand years, and we can still mine the events of that time/story for theatrical content.

As for Achilles, I felt little but contempt. I thought of him as a violent, unfeeling warrior ready to leap at the chance to commit grotesque, brutal acts of hate against other people. And Patroclus was little more than a tool for Achilles’ rage.

Then I read the synopsis for “The Song of Achilles” and realized that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.

Oh.

Oh.

Damn, okay, that reframed things. Suddenly Achilles was less a “hateful man looking for an excuse to commit war crimes” and more “Grief-enraged romantic antihero.” Patroclus advanced from a plot device to the very reason for someone’s being. Everything slid into place once I heard the theory that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers. I know Miller did not invent their relationship and has gone on record explaining she took the idea from Plato, but I thank her for using her work to put their relationship into such clear focus.

If it sounds like I’ve become an Achilles’ apologist, well, then, yes, I have. And not just because I’m a pathetic romantic. The events of the Trojan War made so much more sense once I realized that Patroclus was Achilles’ lover. When Achilles eventually died from Paris’ arrow, it wasn’t because his character was no longer relevant, but because his reason to live was gone. He faded from the story once Patroclus was gone, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Without Patroclus, Achilles had no need for riches and glory. Half of his soul was missing. 

I think one of the reasons “The Song of Achilles” is so impactful is because of how closeted earlier telling’s of the story have been. Like I said, people don’t usually commit gruesome acts in retribution for their friends and cousins (Or, I don’t know, maybe I need better friends). Achilles and Patroclus, and the Iliad, have been done a deep disservice by storytellers who purposefully omitted their relationship. Once I understood the depth of feeling between the two men, could I even begin to understand why Achilles would act so violently. The added nuance of their romantic relationship put the entire Iliad into perspective. I agree with other writers who claim that the two have been robbed of their story.  

That’s disappointing. I think the movie “Troy” could have been so much more impactful if it had shown Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. We could have had, “Achilles weeps. He cradles me, and will not eat, nor speak a word than than my name.” Instead, we were deprived of a heart-breaking love story because the film creators were concerned that a queer love story wouldn’t fly, and I think that’s bullshit. The movie “Troy” is bad for many reasons, but the closeting of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is one of its worst decisions. That, and trying to make me think of Paris and Helen as destined lovers, rather than the worst couple ever.

It’s shameful that we live in a country so determined to closet people. When I was a kid, I watched the show “Sailor Moon,” and was obsessed, even though I don’t remember anything about the plot. Something about fighting evil by moonlight, I think. I also remember Haruka and Michiru, or Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune. In the popular manga/anime, the two women are in a romantic relationship, whereas in the American dubbed version, the two are “cousins.” This is troubling for many reasons, though one of the most disturbing is that as the characters still flirted and held hands in the show, their relationship seemed incestuous. Eventually VIZ Media obtained the rights to the show and made a point about reversing that change, but that was still over a decade of closeting. It’s interesting that “Troy” made this same error.  

I love my cousins, but there is a lot I wouldn’t do for them. I wouldn’t play swords with them, I wouldn’t drag a corpse behind me like the wedding cans on a getaway car, and I wouldn’t request that my ashes be buried with theirs. So to my cousins reading this who are disappointed, I’m sorry.

I avoided “The Song of Achilles” for a long time, mainly because romantic tragedies bum me out. However, I read Madeline Miller’s other work, “Circe“, when initially released in 2018, and I loved it. It’s a wonderful story, and Circe is a compelling character. Throughout the book, you feel her intense loneliness and how desperately she wants someone to know her and love her.

Patroclus and Achilles have a different journey than Circe, and perhaps that’s what makes them so compelling. They do know each other – “I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came, and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.” Their problem isn’t loneliness; it’s divinity and fate. They cannot avoid the path that lays ahead of Achilles, and because Patroclus is bound to him, this fate will affect him as well.

We, as the readers know their story will end tragically, just as they do, and like them, we just want more time.  

When I finished reading “The Song of Achilles,” I was a mess of tears. I was devastated. These two people loved each other so much, but sometimes love isn’t enough, especially when the gods intervene. While reading Miller’s story, I was often struck by the beauty of the prose and how well it conveyed the intimacy of Achilles and Patroclus’ love. Yet, I was also paralyzed with the knowledge of how their story would end. I was like King Priam – powerless to stop the misery and carnage before me.  

But as strange as it sounds, the sense of foreboding I felt while reading this book, as well as the melancholy that came once I finished it, are good. I only was able to feel this misery because I had felt so much vicarious joy through seeing these two men grow up and fall in love with each other. “We reached for each other, and I thought of how many nights I had lain awake loving him in silence.” Because of Miller’s work, I was able to live through Patroclus and experience what he did. 

Though now, my feelings for this book are distracting me, hence the title of this article. This is where fanfiction has helped me. And no, I have not been reading 80,000+ fanfiction novels about Patrochilles in the Omegaverse (though my money is on Achilles as the omega). I have a lot of respect and admiration for writers who can convey the tone and characterization of the original author. I think the ability to write something “in character” is vastly underappreciated, especially for a novel as poetic as “The Song of Achilles.” My own attempts at fanfiction would look something like this:

[Scene: Achilles and Patroclus in the Underworld]

Achilles: You good, homie?

Patroclus: Yup, I’m always good when I’m with you.

Achilles: I look forward to never being unhappy again.

Patroclus: Same!

[They hold hands and walk into Elysium. Patroclus sees Briseis and gives her a high-five. End Scene.]

Miss Posabule, Happy Hagfish: “The Song of Achilles” is Ruining My Life
Though this artist came up with something pretty spectacular

Even as I realize these are fictional characters, I want them to be happy and together so badly. I had such an emotional response to this book that it was distracting. In many ways, my longing for their happily ever after reminded me a little of a poem by Sappho:

"Sweet mother, I cannot weave -
slender Aphrodite has overcome me
with longing for a girl."

(Feel free to replace “a girl” with “a happily ever after between two fated lovers from the Grecian Age of Heroes”) Ironically, when I first researched the poem, I found this link:

It looks like we still have some ways to go. 

I leave you with this wonderful interview between Madeline Miller and Tom Ranzweiler

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