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352 pages, Hardcover
First published September 20, 2011
"Achilles. Who was he if not miraculous, and radiant? Who was he if not destined for fame?"
" 'Go,' she says. 'He waits for you.' "
"Name one hero who was happy . . . You can't . . . I'll tell you a secret . . . I'm going to be the first."Achilles is destined to become the greatest warrior of his generation. But before that, he is just a boy growing up in Phthia with his devoted companion Patroclus by his side. The two are sent away to the mountains to be trained, but it isn't long before war comes calling when Helen of Troy is kidnapped. Achilles is forced to choose between eternal glory and mediocrity, but with greatness comes a price that Achilles and Patroclus will both have to pay.
ACHILLES, it reads. And beside it, PATROCLUS.
“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.”
“True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another." He spread his broad hands. "We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?" He smiles. "Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”
“He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.”
“There are no bargains between lion and men. I will kill you and eat you raw.”
“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”
“I am made of memories.”
PATROCLUSIn the Iliad Patroclus is one of the Achaeans’ most formidable warriors: he has more named kills than almost any other character; he fights a river god into submission; he convincingly portrays Achilles to the point that even the Achaeans’ own armies are roused to battle again; he’s only stopped from scaling the walls of Troy itself when Apollo—a major deity!—comes down and plucks him off the wall so Hector can fight him. Patroclus is Achilles’s equal—put a pin in that, by the way, because it’s an important detail.
ACHILLESThe first line of the Iliad states what the crux of the story is about: rage. The rage of Achilles is his defining characteristic, not his warmth or his kindness or his gentleness. His moments of affection, typically involving Patroclus or Thetis, are always filtered through his anger. Even Patroclus calls out Achilles on his shitty behaviour in the Iliad. Part of what makes Achilles such a fascinating character is his flaws: his anger, his intolerance, his blind fury. I’d concede that some of it might be misguided love, but the majority is rage. He’s got some anger issues, okay?
WRITINGMuch like Cat Valente, whose writing I also vehemently dislike, Miller’s prose is “good” in the sense that it lends itself well to a thousand out-of-context quotes on Tumblr posts. In a publishing industry heavily reliant on social media and word-of-mouth marketing practices, I can’t say this is necessarily a bad thing; I disagree with it, sure, but it clearly sells. She’s got some genuinely evocative and stunning lines—I’m sure you’ve seen them all over social media—but in terms of actual writing, i.e., pacing and character development and characterisation, there’s nothing there. I’m fairly certain that, were the basic plot not already laid out for her, she’d do poorly in that area as well.
THE RELATIONSHIP, PART IThe Iliad opens with exposition, and doesn’t shy away from use of it. Conversely, Miller relies on the fact that her audience is already familiar with not only the Iliad but also Greek mythology in general, because she doesn’t spare much thought to writing the reasons why Achilles and Patroclus are in love. What draws them together? Miller doesn’t say. Why is Achilles so special? We never learn. What about Patroclus caught Achilles’s attention, when he could have his pick of women or men? No answer is given. There’s no narrative depth or development to their relationship, so the emotional core of the story—Patroclus’s death—rings hollow.
THE RELATIONSHIP, PART IIAs I mentioned in the section on Patroclus, one of the main issues I had with Miller’s framing of the Achilles-Patroclus relationship within a sort of seme/uke dynamic is that it wasn’t like that in the Iliad. In reality the fact that it wasn’t was so notable that scholars both contemporary and later were arguing back and forth about which of them was the “top” and which the “bottom” in their sexual relationship. Both in classical antiquity and in modernity, the fact that they were equals makes them stand out. Miller could’ve taken this unique relationship and made something revolutionary and groundbreaking of it, but she chose not to. Instead, Patroclus is effeminate, innocent, campy, and squeamish about the blood and guts of war. He’s a “healer” who stays in the tents while Achilles is off slaughtering people on the battlefield. He’s soft-hearted and emotional, crying while Achilles shows no emotion—never mind the fact that, in the Iliad, Achilles wept so hard and so long at Patroclus’s death that the sound of his cries reached the bottom of the sea and alerted Thetis, who came barrelling up to see what was wrong.
MISOGYNYI could go on for years about how much I hate how Miller writes women (for more of that, see Circe), but it can be easily summarised: Miller has two types of woman, “plain supportive non-threatening wing(wo)man” or “conventionally attractive evil jealous bitch,” and those are the only female characters she writes.
THETISIn the interest of transparency I’ll admit upfront that Thetis is one of my favourite characters in the Iliad. She’s a fascinating figure, a rape victim who never wanted children and who fled from her abusive husband as soon as she could, but still loved her son and visited him whenever possible, trying to protect him from being conscripted into the war and then, when it was inevitable, pulling strings by exploiting her godly connections to convince Hephaestus to forge Achilles’s shield. She dipped him in the River Styx when he was a baby because she wanted to protect him. As I mentioned, Achilles cried so loudly when Patroclus died that Thetis heard him from the ocean floor and came to the surface to console him. She helped him care for Patroclus’s body and build his pyre. And does Miller write Thetis as the immortal nereid who loved her mortal son? No, of course not. Miller writes her as a jealous, scheming villain who hates Patroclus and who abandoned her son—never mind that she was and did the opposite in the Iliad! Thetis loved her son so much she tried to make him immortal so she could keep him with her forever, and was only prevented from doing so by Peleus, her rapist and Achilles’s father.
“An ordinary wife would have counted herself lucky to find a husband with [Peleus’s] mildness, his smile-lined face.”Mildness?! He tricked her and raped her, at which point the gods forced her to marry him and stay with him for a year, during which time he continued to rape her. And Miller blames her for escaping her rapist and abuser at the earliest possible moment. Miller’s reasoning for Thetis’s escape is that she loathed his human simplicity and mortality, instead of, oh, I don’t know, the fact that he raped and abused her!
BRISEIS(For a better portrayal of Briseis, I’d recommend Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls.)
DEIDAMIAOne of the seven daughters of King Lycomedes amidst whom Achilles was concealed when Thetis dressed him up in drag to hide him from the war recruiters, Deidamia is a minor character in Achilles’s story. She and Achilles had a sexual relationship (despite the fact that they couldn’t have been older than 14 or 15), and Deidamia later gave birth to Neoptolemus—known as Pyrrhus after the name Achilles adopted while disguised as a woman, Pyrrha.
HELENMiller barely mentions Helen, but what little attention Helen does get is not exactly glowing. The narrative of Helen as an evil seductress instead of a victim is hardly new—it crops up as early as the Oresteia, when Orestes blames Helen for the murder of his father—but it never gets any less disappointing. Helen was bewitched by Aphrodite and given as a prize to Paris. Regardless of whether she truly grew to love him or always longed to go back to Menelaus, blaming her for the war is ahistorical and misogynistic.
HOMOPHOBIAAnyone who says that ancient Greece was 100% accepting of homosexual relationships is factually incorrect. Our modern idea of sexuality cannot be applied to ancient societies (the term for this is presentism). Although same-sex relationships between men were indeed commonplace, they were not typically considered on the same level as heterosexual relationships (often associated with marriage—love and marriage were discrete topics throughout much of history). What was common amongst men was pederasty, a relationship dynamic in which the older man, typically more knowledgeable and experienced, was the erastes (active partner, i.e., top) and the younger man, typically less-experienced and more effeminate, was the eromenos (passive partner, i.e., bottom). Obviously the notion of top/bottom dynamics has persisted into modern queer relationships, although in reality it’s incredibly rare that one person will prefer being exclusively one or the other.
BISEXUALITY?This is a minor detail, but it bothered me: Miller’s Achilles is revolted by the concept of even touching a woman, but Achilles did like women, and in fact slept with at least two within the context of the Iliad. Patroclus, whom Miller writes as disgusted by Deidamia’s vagina, also slept with at least one woman in the Iliad. This is a minor change—none of those women except Deidamia and Briseis is important to the story—and I wouldn’t have minded Miller’s changing it had she written more and better female characters.
CONCLUSIONMaybe if I weren’t a classicist I might’ve enjoyed it, but I am, so I didn’t. It’s made even worse because Miller herself has an Ivy League classics degree and, while we’re all well-accustomed to seeing bastardisations of the classics in popular media (think Troy or 300), I expected better from someone who matriculated from Brown University. There’s no way she got a degree in classics without having read the Symposium and Phaedrus—both of which discuss, at length, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Plato’s characters (mouthpieces, really) discuss how Achilles and Patroclus do not adhere to the traditional pederastic dynamic expected of young men their age. This would actually be an excellent way to dissect and discuss gender roles, sexuality, and heteronormativity in ancient (and, indirectly, modern) society and queer relationships. But instead we get this, and hordes of uneducated high school children fawn over a factually inaccurate, fetishistic, homophobic portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus, and Miller gets rich off her scheming. This is nothing more than poorly written Iliad fan fiction that’s exactly as bad as anything you’d find on LiveJournal circa 2003 (I was born into it... moulded by it...). Fuck this book, and fuck everyone who supports it.
It was very important to me to stay faithful to the events of Homer’s narrative. The central inspiration behind the book is the terrible moment in the Iliad when Achilles hears about Patroclus’ death. His reaction is shocking in its intensity. The great half-god warrior—who carelessly defies rules, and condemns a whole army to death—comes completely unglued, desperate with grief and rage. I wanted to understand what it was about Patroclus and their relationship that could create that kind of crisis. Although Homer tells us what his characters do, he doesn’t tell us much of why they do it. Who was Achilles? And why did he love Patroclus so much?Patroclus is a twelve-year-old prince down on his luck. Born of a damaged mother and possessed of none of the obvious gifts that make fathers proud, he defends himself against a bully. The bully slips, falls, coshes his deserving skull on a rock and the planet is one bully lighter. Oops, sorry. But since the bully was a royal, Pops exiles Patroclus to the island of Phthia. (Go ahead, try to say it out loud, five times fast, or at all. You know you want to. Sounds like Parseltongue to me.) Luckily for him, the island’s king, Peleus, is kind and receptive. In fact he seems to have made a business of re-treading unwanted, or in-need-of-training blue-bloods, running a sort of island of lost royalty, a military training camp for boys. He is also father to the luminous Achilles. The questionably-heeled one (BTW, the heel never enters the story here. As Miller explains on her website, it was added to the myth of Achilles way later, by the Romans) is presented in such glowing terms that we are uncertain if the author is elevating him to the level of Homeric perfection, or we are seeing the externalization of the smitten Patroclus’ achy smitten-ness. In any case, Achilles turns out to be a pretty decent sort, and takes Patroclus under his wing, even inviting him to share his room. In time it gets steamy. Boys have, well, needs, and their inclinations, it turns out, are in synch. Thankfully the soft-core element of this story cools down enough to give us a look at the times, the idiocy of the Trojan War, and the ridiculousness of leadership, which does not seem to have changed all that much over the millennia. While some physical intimacy is noted, the author very much focuses on the affection between the two as a moving force.
In writing this novel, I thought a lot about personal responsibility. Patroclus is not an epic person, the way Achilles is. He’s an “ordinary” man. But he has more power than he thinks, and the moments where he reaches out to others and offers what he sees as his very modest assistance have huge positive ramifications. Most of us aren’t Achilles—but we can still be Patroclus. What does it mean to try to be an ethical person in a violent world?You will have to suspend your disbelief a bit, as magical things do happen. Just as Homer included magical elements in his epic, so Miller follows. Gods do indeed engage themselves in human affairs. Achilles is the product of a human father and a fishy-dearest sea nymph of a mother. The lads are trained by a centaur, Chiron, who is a pretty cool character, (fans of Harry Potter will recognize in Chiron the source for Hogwarts’ own Firenze, also a teacher of medicine, and overall good guy) and of course the gods can’t help but interfere with the doings of men, like early-version Koch Brothers with training in the Dark Arts. Miller takes the odd liberty here and there. Patroclus, for example, was older than Achilles in the Iliad. They are the same age here. But The Song of Achilles is a novel.
“Why would I kill Hector? What has Hector ever done to me?”