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Literature / The Song of Achilles

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''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.'

The Song of Achilles is a 2011 novel by Madeline Miller. It retells the events of, and leading up to, The Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus, the beloved companion of Achilles.

Patroclus is a disappointment to his father, and is still young when he is exiled to the island of Phthia, to be an attendant on the half-divine Achilles. But Achilles takes a shine to Patroclus, and it's not long before they're best friends, and then lovers. They learn the art of heroism from the great teacher Chiron, and want to live happily ever after... but then word comes of a great war, brewing between Troy and Sparta. Patroclus is bound to go, by oath. Achilles is bound to follow him, for love and glory.

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


Sing, O Muse, of the Following Tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Patroclus's mother is mentally disabled, and his father constantly criticizes him and effectively disowns and exiles him in the end.
  • Accidental Murder: Patroclus, as a boy, pushes over a bigger boy who is bullying him, and by bad luck, cracks his skull. This instance is echoed in his later fight against Sarpedon - who is killed by a very lucky fall from a chariot, that breaks his neck.
  • Achilles' Heel: A notable aversion. Like in the earliest, Homeric tellings of The Iliad, Achilles doesn't have a weak point, he's just extraordinarily skilled in battle. He dies after getting shot in the heart just like a normal soldier. Metaphorically, it was Achilles's pride that ultimately did him in, although the heel is lightly referenced.
    Paris: Where do I aim? I heard he was invulnerable. Except for—
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  • Achilles in His Tent: Duh. The book humanises his selfishness slightly, by reminding the reader that Achilles' knowledge of the prophecy about him means he has literally given his life for his legacy, and Agamemnon genuinely is being a total idiot. It still does not shy away from how many lives are being lost because of Achilles' pride.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The entire Iphigenia arc is only included as a footnote.
  • 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.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: In the Iliad, Achilles was explicitly attracted to women and his relationship to Patroclus was Ho Yay, Homoerotic Subtext, or Homoerotic Subtext that essentially is text. Here he's completely oblivious to even his own wife's attraction to him, and completely devoted to Patroclus.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Anachronism Stew: It's a minor thing. The time period that the Iliad was supposedly set in was Mycenaean Greece, meaning that the Bronze Age. In the first few pages iron spears are already mentioned. This was probably intentional, since Madeline Miller has said that she didn't try to portray Mycenaean Greece exactly, but more so to the Greece portrayed in Homer, and he already had plenty of anachronisms himself.
  • Arc Words: "What has Hector ever done to me?"
  • Archer Archetype: Discussed in-universe, Patroclus mentions that archers are usually considered to be cowards, but no one would say this about Philoctetes, the last surviving companion of Heracles, whose bow and arrow skills are legendary.
  • 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. Briseis is also given a larger role in the story as the voice of the women who were claimed by Achilles to avoid being raped by the other Greek warriors.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: This lets Patroclus down badly when he dons Achilles' armour. It's the first time he's been in battle since the early days of the war when he was a terrified nobody being protected by Achilles, and the adrenaline rush he experiences as Trojans flee him and Greeks cheer him (assuming a god isn't influencing him more directly) make him reckless.
  • 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. (Then again, it is the smitten Patroclus doing the narrating, so...)
  • Barred from the Afterlife: Patroclus is unable to enter Hades and be with Achilles because his name was left off the monument, at least until Thetis relents and carves his name onto it.
  • 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.
  • 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. Oh, how he loves to fight, because it lets his divine gifts at speed and fighting truly shine.
    • His son Pyrrhus is worse, very likely being The Sociopath who displays no emotions beyond sadism and pride in his abilities and his name.
  • 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.
  • Bungled Suicide: Achilles' immediate reaction to seeing Patroclus' dead body is to reach for his knife to slit his own throat, but since he had previously given the knife to Patroclus, he fails to do so.
  • Child Soldier: Achilles is a downplayed version of this, first fighting at sixteen. But oh, his son Pyrrhus plays this straight to a T, as he's just twelve when he fights.
  • Creepy Child: Pyrrhus very much qualifies. See Troubling Unchildlike Behavior for more information.
  • Death Seeker: Achilles, after Patroclus' death. He only keeps fighting because he wants to meet someone who can kill him.
  • Developing Doomed Characters:
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: While pursuing Hector, Achilles' path is barred by a god. Even though it is a minor river god rather than one of the Olympian heavyweights, it is still impressive that Achilles is able to wound him badly enough that he has to retreat.
  • Divine Parentage: Achilles's mother is Thetis, a sea nymph (an actual sea-goddess according to Greek mythology).
  • Double Standard: Rape, Divine on Mortal: A rare inversion: the sea-goddess Thetis was raped and kidnapped by Peleus, but all of the other gods gave him permission to do it, because Peleus is very pious. They make Thetis stay with Peleus for a year and a day, but after that she has nothing to do with the mortal.
  • Dramatic Irony: Half the foreshadowing especially since Achilles' and Patroclus' fate is a Foregone Conclusion.
    • Odysseus's Doting Parent Happily Married family man traits are highlighted, making his inevitable ten-year journey home all the more tragic.
    • 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.
    • Pyrrhus is quite certain that his name will be as great or greater than his father's, and when Odysseus tries to convince him that reputation isn't everything, half-jokingly saying that in future centuries even his name will be better known than Pyrrhus', Pyrrhus is contemptuously dismissive. In literary circles, Pyrrhus is still introduced as "Achilles's son", while Odysseus on the other hand has a good claim to eclipsing Achilles himself.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • El Cid Ploy: A classic part of the Achilles myth; Patroclus borrows his armor and impersonates him.
  • 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.
    • A mutual in-universe one occurs when Achilles first meets Agamemnon. The latter is expecting to receive pledges of allegiance from Achilles, while the Achilles very deliberately addresses him as an equal, and Odysseus has to save the situation when Agamemnon lacks the social grace to save face without help. This lets both men know the pride and stubbornness of the other, and also sets them against each other right from the start.
  • Ethereal White Dress: Patroclus describes seeing Thetis like this on the battle field, watching Achilles. He notes that he can barely see her or understand her facial expression, so she very much seems like a ghost.
  • Evil Redhead: Pyrrhus, Achilles' son, has unnaturally bright red hair and is very likely a sociopath.
  • Fatal Flaw: Pride. Achilles and Agamemnon nearly destroy the Greeks' chance of victory through their refusal to back down, and willingness to let countless soldiers die rather than feel humiliated, even knowing that they run the risk of being hated by the very subordinates they are trying to impress.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Patroclus comes pretty close to being a bit player in his own story.
  • Foil: Pyrrhus is what Achilles might have been without the redeeming traits Patroclus brings out in him. They have similar levels of combat skill, bloodlust and glory-seeking behaviour, but Achilles genuinely loves Patroclus and accepts his guidance in being a better man, while Pyrrhus is a sexual sadist who refuses to accept advice from anyone.
  • Foot Focus: Patroclus' loving descriptions of Achilles' grace and beauty seem to bring up his feet rather a lot.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone who's read The Iliad knows that Patroclus will die to save Achilles' glory, and Achilles will go mad with grief.
  • Glory Seeker: To a man of ancient Greece, a long life withering into obscurity is a curse. Achilles elects to go to Troy because it means his demi-godhood will be seen by all, and he'll live forever in song (and it turns out, this works). This applies to many of the other heroes as well, though Pyrrhus takes the cake, as he seems incapable of any emotions beyond pride and sadism.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Achilles is half-god, half-mortal. Another half-god (son of Zeus, in this case) is the mighty and immense Sarpedon. And of course, there's Helen.
  • Happily Married: Odysseus truly loves his wife Penelope. Patroclus says this kind of marriage is "as rare as cedars in the east."
  • History Repeats: At the end of the book, Patroclus as a ghost learns that Pyrrhus abducted and raped the bride of Agamemnon's son, much as Paris abducted Helen; if you're well-versed with the Classics, you'll know that bride is Hermione, Helen's daughter. And like Paris, Pyrrhus is killed for his crime. It's also a repetition of the rivalry between Achilles and Agamemnon over a woman, only this time Agamemnon's son is the one who's justified in his wrath and wins their conflict.
  • 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 played for tragedy, as Briseis genuinely falls in love with Patroclus, and hopes that he might be someone who could take both a wife and a lover, while Patroclus can only respond that he could never truly have feelings for her while he loves Achilles. He still cares for her deeply.
    • Happens first between Achilles and Deidameia, where she genuinely falls for him but he feels nothing for her.
  • It's All About Me: Not quite, as Achilles does genuinely love Patroclus, but his indifference to the suffering of the common soldiers, and his willingness to let Briseis be raped by Agamemnon because it will give him an excuse to kill him, horrify his lover.
  • It's Personal: Achilles ultimately kills Hector because he killed Patroclus, and he has become a Death Seeker who wants to accelerate the prophecy that Hector must die before him. Plus, he wants revenge.
  • Jerkass Gods:
    • The focus is on Achilles' mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, who loves him (in her way) but loathes Patroclus, Achilles' beloved. Thetis doesn't care whose life she destroys as long as Achilles fulfills his glorious potential. Eventually, she relents towards Patroclus. Years and years after his death.
    • Thetis' story revealed at the end shows that the other gods were just as awful to her. It was prophesied that her son would be greater than his father, so the permission that they gave Peleus to rape and marry her by force as a reward for his piety was actually them ensuring the father of her child would be a mortal, so that a stronger son would still be no threat to them.
  • Karmic Death: Pyrrhus is certain his name will be as great or even greater than his father's, while both in this story and in classic mythology he dies incredibly young, meeting a shameful end when he kidnaps and rapes the bride of Agamemnon's son and is killed for it by her husband. Pyrrhus says to Briseis, when she asks him what he would have of her, "Whatever I want," and kills her when she attacks him and tries to escape; Patroclus's shade remembers Pyrrhus' former words when he hears of the circumstances of the boy's death, emphasising how his cruelty both ruled and doomed him.
  • Kid Hero: Pyrrhus, an incredible fighter who joins the Greeks at Troy when he is all of twelve. This trope is then Played for Drama - Pyrrhus is only this way because he was raised by a divine grandmother, and he's a Creepy Child bordering on sociopathic who kills even infants without hesitation, and also has the body and lusts of an adult man.
  • Living Legend: Achilles himself is one - thanks to his goddess mother, his speed and skill at arms make him Aristos Achaion, the Best of the Greeks. Other Living Legends of their time include the massive Ajax; the son of Zeus, Sarpedon; the powerful and pious Hector; and the aged Philoctetes.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name: "Patroclus" means "Father's Glory" - an Ironic Name because Patroclus is the biggest possible disappointment to his father.
  • The Medic: Patroclus' time studying with Chiron makes him a knowledgeable doctor, and he has a knack for surgery. He feels connected to the men that he heals, a connection that Achilles doesn't get.
  • My Beloved Smother: Thetis is on the...overbearing and controlling side, towards Achilles. Not to mention her very obvious disapproval of Patroclus, whom she regards as unworthy of her son. She relents, kind of, at the very end.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In the end Thetis seems to regret the way she raised and treated her son and especially her grandson, particularly since the latter ends up a vile rapist — perhaps reminding her of her own treatment by the gods — and gets himself killed due to his sociopathic tendencies and lust.
  • The Neidermeyer: Downplayed; Agamemnon isn't hated by his men, nor is he cowardly or incompetent, he is just not revered the way Achilles is, nor as brilliant as Odysseus, and his own massive ego cause huge problems for everyone. This insecurity causes him to come dangerously close to becoming this trope fully, and he is very lucky that Achilles' own hubris and stupidity cause him to overreach and disgrace himself first.
  • Oblivious to Love: Achilles is this to Deidameia, painfully so. Patroclus often wants to remind him to be kinder to her, but he'd always realize that he's not being cruel, just uninterested.
    • Patroclus is this in the earlier chapters for Achilles. Really Patroclus, you tell us that Achilles leapt onto your bed to tell you good morning, leaned in so close that your noses touched, and you didn't notice a thing? Downplayed in that it's relatively debatable as to when exactly Achilles first fell for Patroclus, and Patroclus was more so unsure of how Achilles felt for him.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Odysseus (mostly unsuccessfully) tries to play peacemaker between the Greek leaders.
    • Patroclus later tries to be this with Achilles (a lot) and successfully with Agamemnon (once) when the latter is too stupid to realise that raping Briseis will give Achilles an excuse to kill him. Agamemnon realises what thin ice he's on not only Patroclus spelling out what will happen, but also the realisation that since nobody else told him this themselves (even though someone like Odysseus would most certainly have figured it out), it means the others are desperate enough to want him out of the picture.
  • Perfect Health: Patroclus was remarked as this growing. But his dad only saw it as a nuisance, and even suspicious, thinking that he got a useless changeling instead. Father of the year.
  • Perspective Flip: The Iliad from the point of view of a secondary character, who barely does any fighting.
  • Prophecy Twist:
    • Near the start of the war, Achilles and Patroclus learn that Achilles is safe until "the best of the Myrmidons" dies, and they try to work out who that might be, because it certainly couldn't be Non-Action Guy Patroclus. Shame he didn't remember that 10 years later, when Briseis unwittingly bestows this title on him due to his kindness and generosity.
    • Right at the end of the book we learn that it was prophesied that Thetis' son would be greater than his father, so the gods got around the threat it could pose to them if she were impregnated by a mighty god by having the mortal Peleus father her son.
  • The Promise: All of the men who came to woo Helen, daughter of Zeus, have to swear a vow that if Helen is ever abducted, they will all help her rightful husband to get her back. Even the pipsqueak Patroclus has to swear this (though as Achilles points out, he could have avoided it as he swore with his father's name, that he lost when exiled).
  • 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, albeit under direct instruction from the gods. Later, however, this view seems more prevalent (at least with kind-hearted Patroclus), though even when he considers raping "spoils of war" to be wrong, he only reacts with real horror when it's threatened to someone he personally cares about. Pyrrhus is killed by Agammenon's son for kidnapping and raping his bride; while that might have been more due to the insult to the man's honour than the attack upon the woman, Patroclus's shade is disgusted when he hears of it and bitterly asks Thetis if this was the son she preferred to Achilles. Arguably justified by Deliberate Values Dissonance.
  • The Resenter: Patroclus starts out this way towards Achilles, but he soon gets over it.
  • Self-Deprecation: Patroclus does this a lot, especially when he compares himself to others. Much of this is due the people in his life, notably his own father, constantly criticizing him.
  • 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.
  • Semi-Divine: This being a retelling of the Iliad, the world is full of them. Achilles himself is the most obvious, but there's also Helen and Sarpedon, both children of Zeus, and Aeneas, son of Aphrodite. Heracles and Polydeuces are also mentioned in passing.
  • Sex Slave: Briseis is threatened with this repeatedly; when she is first captured, she is expecting this from Achilles, though she is actually perfectly safe from him. Later, Agamemnon claims her to humiliate Achilles, and was clearly intending to rape her until Patroclus points out that this would be such an insult to Achilles that it would give Achilles an excuse to kill him. Finally, she is claimed by Pyrrhus who announces his intention to punish her for "lying" about how much Achilles loved Patroclus, and then kills her when she tries to flee.
  • Shown Their Work: 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 Naïve: Achilles is the greatest warrior of his generation and generations past, but his innocence and lack of cunning often makes him easily manipulable.
  • Sleeps in the Nude: This is considered a norm in summer. Patroclus finds this torturous once he's sixteen and shares a bed with Achilles.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: Patroclus dies, Achilles dies, and they're separated in death. Briseis is dead. All of the Greeks have sailed away, and there is no one left to name Patroclus on the headstone. It looks like he might be a homeless spirit forever... until Thetis, in the last paragraph, writes Patroclus' name on Achilles' monument, permitting him to join his beloved in the afterlife.
  • Tempting Fate: "What has Hector ever done to me?" Achilles asks. Anyone familiar with the story knows that Hector is going to make Achilles very, very angry.
  • Their First Time: Discusses in the beginning of chapter six. It's said that even by the young age of ''thirteen'' Achilles and Patroclus were considered almost late for still being virgins, and that all of the other boys in the palace had done so with slaves. Achilles and Patroclus do consummate once they're sixteen though.
  • Together in Death: Played for Drama. Patroclus dies first, but without a proper burial and a marked headstone, he can't go on to the Underworld. Then Achilles dies, and gets the burial and headstone... so he's in Hades, but Patroclus isn't. Finally played straight, see Surprisingly Happy Ending.
  • 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.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior:
    • For most of the book he's actually quite the sweetheart, but Achilles starts having some shades of this after he first murders, at age sixteen. Only a few days ago he was traumatized after seeing Iphigenia sacrificed, so it's unsettling to see him so comfortable with death.
    • But again, Pyrrhus is a much straighter example of this, since he's a killer and rapist at twelve.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Achilles' indifference to the lives of the common soldiers is excused by Patroclus as an inevitable result of Achilles' ability to kill so many so effortlessly, but Patroclus is horrified that Achilles would allow Agamemnon to take and rape Briseis simply to get an excuse to kill him. He also pulls no punches with how self-defeating Achilles is being with his refusal to fight.
  • 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 is said to be this - and with Zeus as her father, people don't doubt - but Patroclus, our narrator, never sees her, not even when he goes to war to fight for her!
  • You Can't Fight Fate: All prophecies are set in stone, except for the ones that are an Either/Or Prophecy.

Alternative Title(s): Song Of Achilles


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