Literature / Song of Achilles
''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.'

'I know. They never let you be famous and happy.' He lifted an eyebrow. 'I'll tell you a secret.'

'Tell me.' I loved it when he was like this.

'I'm going to be the first.' He took my palm and held it to his. 'Swear it.'

'Why me?'

'Because you're the reason. Swear it.'
Page ninety-eight, Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles is a 2012 novel by Madeline Miller, detailing the life of the Greek legendary hero Achilles from the eyes of his faithful best friend and confidante, Patroclus. The book spans from when Achilles was a child to his final role in The Trojan War, and thus is a retelling of The Illiad as well. At heart, The Song of Achilles is a love story, a recording of the fierce devotion and passion between the two men, an exploration of the depths of the human heart and a vivid interpretation of classical Greek heroes, brought to life by a compelling plot and beautiful language.

The novel won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, and is Miller's first published work.

Tropes used within this work include:

  • Abusive Parents: Patroclus's mother is mentally disabled, and his father constantly criticizes him and effectively disowns and exiles him in the end.
  • Achilles' Heel: Interestingly enough, averted. Achilles gets shot in the heart just like a normal soldier. Word of God states that she's always found the heel thing rather unrealistic, so she didn't include it in the novel, which is consistent when Homer's original version since the heel bit was added several centuries after him. Metaphorically, it was Achilles's pride that ultimately killed him and Patroclus both.
  • Achilles in His Tent: Duh.
  • Adaptational Consent: In the original myth Peleus and Thetis married after he managed to restrain her and she consented to marrying him as a Best Her to Bed Her challenge, while in this story he instead raped her and conceived Achilles. As a result the two have a considerably worse relationship.
  • Age Lift: In ancient Greek versions Patroclus is noticeably older than Achilles (his grandmother Aegina is Achilles' great-grandmother), here they are the same age.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Priam in stark contrast to every Greek leader especially Achilles, making his moment of awesome even more powerful.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Achilles's dashing good looks causes him to break a few hearts. Briseis is also quite fond of Patroclus.
  • Amazon Brigade: The horsewomen of Anatolia.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: It's heavily implied that Patroclus' mother has some form of mental retardation, though the specifics are (understandably for the time period) never spelled out.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Though Patroclus loves Achilles unconditionally, his attachment to Briseis seems a little more than platonic. (For instance, he fantasizes about having a child with her.) He also has sex with a woman at one point, and, while he is not romantically attracted to her, he does admit that he finds her body arousing.
  • Arc Words: "What has Hector ever done to me?"
  • Ascended Extra: Patroclus, who was not one of the truly major characters in the Illiad, is the narrator of the book and a central character.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: This lets Patroclus down badly.
  • Attractive Bent-Gender: While disguised on Scyros, Achilles as "Pyrrha" is apparently not only a convincing woman but also a very attractive one. Probably that divine blood at work.
  • Badass Gay: Achilles is completely uninterested in girls, and Patroclus only vaguely.
  • Badass Normal: Patroclus, again. He even points out that, unlike most other suitors for Helen, he wasn't the son or grandson of a god.note 
  • Bittersweet Ending: Yes, everybody you love ends up dying, but Patroclus and Achilles finally manage to find each other in the underworld and reunite once again.
  • Blood Knight: Achilles
  • Big Damn Heroes: Invoked by Patroclus when he comes storming in with Achilles's armour on to rouse the Greek soldiers to fight and scare off the Trojans. It worked for a beautiful amount of time, and then, because of Apollo, it got worse.
  • Brown Note: The effect of seeing Thetis, and presumably any other god, in the flesh is a more mild version of this on mortals, and Thetis is described as being difficult to look at directly and causing severe discomfort in anyone around her. While training with Chiron Patroclus eventually learns to recognize when she's coming because everything, including the animals, go silent prior to her appearing.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Patroclus and Achilles grew up together, and have been best friends since they were nine.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Achilles versus anything that isn't a god, more or less.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Odysseus will occasionally get a few good jabs in.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Thetis to Patroclus
  • Death Seeker: After Patroclus dies, Achilles doesn't even bother trying in battle anymore; he goes fighting without armour, trying desperately to get killed.
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Achilles versus Scamander.
  • Determinator: Patroclus is usually quite mild-mannered, but fuck with anyone he loves, and he will come down on you with the force of the Greek army.
    • He purposely defies Thetis multiple times for Achilles's sake
      • In a more tragic twist, Patroclus also ends up betraying Achilles to Agamemnon in order to save Briseis.
  • Doting Parent: Odysseus does not stop talking about his wife and son.
  • Divine Parentage: Achilles's mother is Thetis, a sea nymph (an actual sea-goddess according to Greek mythology).
  • Dramatic Irony: Half the foreshadowing especially since Achilles' and Patroclus' fate is It Was His Sled territory. For anyone who's read The Iliad, even more so.
    • Odysseus gets a huge amount of it as well. His Doting Parent Happily Married family man traits only highlight his eventual 10 year journey.
    • The fate of most of the Greeks. The atrocities committed during the sack of Troy will anger the gods and most of the Greeks will lose divine favor and meet ignominious ends at sea. Thus the emphasis on glory, riches and victory rings a bit hollow.
  • Driven to Suicide: Patroclus makes it clear in his narration several times that he had no intention of outliving Achilles for long, not realizing that this wouldn't be necessary.
  • Due to the Dead: Since the book is set in ancient Greece, correct funeral rites are of utmost importance. It becomes an important plot point later when Patroclus is unable to join Achilles in the underworld because he has not been buried properly.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome
  • El Cid Ploy: But of course
  • Five-Man Band: The main generals of the war could be seen as this:
  • Establishing Character Moment: An In-Universe example. The first time Patroclus meets an adult Odysseus, he tricks Achilles into revealing himself, blackmails him into going to war (and his death) and reveals he knew the entire time who they were. This colors Patroclus' feelings of and ability to trust him which heavily prevents Odysseus from playing Only Sane Man to Achilles.
  • Foreshadowing: Those who reread the novel stumble upon quite a number of 'oh, fuck' moments, most notably when Chiron is telling Achilles and Patroclus the story of Heracles, who killed his wife and children due to his madness caused by the gods. Achilles protests that the punishment was more unfair to Heracles' wife than to him, and Chiron says that the gods are not known for being fair, and 'perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.'
  • Heroic B.S.O.D./Despair Event Horizon: What Achilles goes into after Patroclus's death, and what pushes him into becoming a full-fledged Death Seeker.
  • Hot-Blooded: Achilles has the potential (he often reacts defensively and aggressively when threatened).
  • Hypocrite: A subtle one with Odysseus. He blackmails and goads Achilles into joining the war with a choice of glory or an ignominious death. However, it's hinted that he tried to avoid the war himself when Patroclus notices his farmer's calluses. (In myth Odysseus pretended to be mad and sow salt until Palamedes revealed him)
  • Incompatible Orientation: When Patroclus first brings Briseis back to the tent he shares with Achilles she's clearly dreading what they'll do to her, and with the language barrier making it difficult to convey that they won't harm her Patroclus simply grabs Achilles and kisses him on the mouth to get the point across.
    • Later on, Briseis ends up falling for Patroclus even knowing that he only loves Achilles
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: When Patroclus arrives at Agamemnon's tent after he takes Briseis he walks in just as he's about to force himself on her.
  • Instant Expert: Achilles at fighting, more or less. Averted for Patroclus on his rampage, who simply copied what he remembered Achilles doing.
  • Ironic Name: Patroclus notes this at one point for himself since his name translates as "glory of the father" when his father wants nothing to do with him and is ashamed of him.
  • It's Personal: Achilles ultimately kills Hector because he killed Patroclus.
  • Jerkass: Agamemnon. Of course anyone who knows his later fate (mainly killed by his own wife as revenge for what he did to their daughter) knows that he doesn't remain a Karma Houdini for long.
  • Lover and Beloved: Interestingly enough, for a gay romance novel set in Ancient Greece, averted. Achilles and Patroclus are pretty clearly equals in their relationship, and it is this which makes their relationship so unusual - it is explicitly spelled-out that this give-and-take is unconventional, where the Seme/Uke type dynamic that was more common in the period would have raised very few eyebrows.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Achilles and Patroclus for each other, holy shit. Patroclus is more subtle than Achilles, only hinted that he doesn't plan to live after Achilles is killed while Achilles went down right murderous and suicidal after Patroclus is killed.
  • Mama Bear: Thetis wavers between this. On one hand, she's fiercely protective of her son. On the other, it's hard to tell whether she's protective because she truly cares for him or she just wants his fame. It is shown in the end, though, that she regrets at least some of her actions and wishes that Achilles had lived.
  • Mama's Boy: But then again, if your mother was a divine sea nymph who planned to make you into a god, you'd probably go along with her plans, too.
  • The Medic: Patroclus is quite a gifted healer. The first time he's on the field he carefully cuts out an arrow shaft out of a soldier's shoulder without any risk of infection.
  • My Beloved Smother: Thetis, once again. Though to be honest if your mother was a sea goddess you probably wouldn't have the nerve to refuse her.
  • Murder by Mistake: How Patroclus ends up in Phthia.
  • Nice Guy: King Peleus, by all accounts. Also, arguably, Patroclus and Menelaus.
  • No-Sell: Thetis whose mere presence is a Brown Note, attacks Odysseus only for him to be completely unaffected. He's favored and protected by Athena who trumps her in power.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: Patroclus interferes in Achilles' plan to let Agamemnon rape Briseis so that Achilles would have just cause to kill him. This starts a chain of events that would lead to Patroclus', Achilles' and Briseis' deaths.
  • One-Hit Kill: Lots.
    • Interestingly both used with Sarpedon, who dies to a single javelin throw when he falls backwards off his chariot and subverted in the same event, since Patroclus must kill Sarpedon as Achilles would have.
  • Only Sane Man: Odysseus (mostly unsuccessfully) tries to play peacemaker between the Greek leaders.
  • Physical God: When Achilles fights, he's untouchable.
    • Not to mention all the actual 'real' Physical Gods floating around, although Thetis is the only one we see much of.
  • Prophecy Twist: Implied. It's prophesied that Achilles will only die after he kills Hector. So Achilles spends 10 years avoiding any confrontation and his Achilles in His Tent is partly to keep out of the battle. However while the prophecy is strictly true, it's Patroclus' death that causes him to be a Death Seeker. Hector dying is merely another consequence.
  • Purple Prose: And how. Pick a love scene and count the times some variant of the word "trembled" is used.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: In his quest for Hector, Achilles is so enraged that even an ancient river god with a staff the size of a tree trunk doesn't stop him. In turn, his reaction to when his mother tells him that he's pissed off Apollo was basically 'let them come at me, I don't have anything to live for'.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Zig-zagged. The first rape we hear of is committed against Thetis in the Back Story by, of all people King Peleus. Later, however, this view seems more prevalent. Arguably justified by Deliberate Values Dissonance.
  • The Resenter: Patroclus starts out this way towards Achilles, but he soon gets over it.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Patroclus dislikes fighting and violence; he is often empathetic to other people's needs and is known for his kindness. Achilles is the physically more able of the two and a model warrior.
  • Shown Their Work: And how! Madeline Miller was a Latin and Greek teacher, and it shows; the whole book is full of references to the more obscure parts of the The Trojan Cycle. Examples include the entire Scyros episode, Protesilaus dying first, and most of the action after Hector dies, amongst a lot of others. It's also got loads of references to Blink-and-You-Miss-It moments such as Patroclus being stabbed in the back before Hector kills him.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: While Patroclus displays a very passing interest in women, Achilles is never shown as anything but completely and utterly Patroclus-sexual.
  • Skilled, but Na´ve: Achilles is the greatest warrior of his generation and generations past, but his innocence and lack of cunning often makes him easily manipulable.
  • Talking to the Dead: When Achilles has a nightmare and he fruitlessly attempts to wake up Patroclus.
  • Team Dad: Patroclus, to all the girls he's rescued in the war. And Briseis is Team Mom. That's partly why she ends up falling for him
  • Tempting Fate: "What has Hector ever done to me?" Achilles asks.
  • Together in Death: Eventually. After he burns Patroclus's body, Achilles orders the soldiers to mix his and Patroclus's ashes together once he's died but even after Achilles died Patroclus' spirit remained on earth unable to move on - because Pyrrhus and Thetis wouldn't engrave Patroclus' name on the tomb. Thetis finally, after a very long talk with Patroclus' spirit did release him which lead to one of the most beautiful passages of the book.
  • Triang Relations: Twice, both type 4. The first occurs with Deidameia's marriage and subsequent pregnancy to Achilles, while the second occurs with Briseis and Patroclus.
  • The So-Called Coward: Patroclus.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Odysseus and Diomedes bicker non-stop.
  • The Women Are Safe with Us: Achilles' and Patroclus' camp becomes this during the war, with Achilles specifically claiming war captives (at Patroclus' prompting) to spare them from being abused by the other Greeks. Though most of the women eventually do go on to marry Greek soldiers it's under considerably less duress than if they had been claimed by others.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Helen of Troy, as per myth. Patroclus meets her as a boy, and is even then awed at how beautiful she is.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: All prophecies are set in stone.
    • Either/Or Prophecy: If they're not set in stone. For example, Achilles can either be famous but die at Troy, or live an obscure but long life.

Alternative Title(s): Song Of Achilles