The Minor Character
The tomes of Greek mythology extend beyond one’s imagination. It covers a vast ground and is populated with a long list of characters who brought in their own personalities into the narrative. It abounds with the heroics of Greek gods, demigods, and powerful mortals. Apart from the gods, there are names like Hercules, Perseus, and Odysseus that loom above the others as they are the quintessence of courage, strength, and bravery. Even mortals sing songs of praises to them. In stark dichotomy to the presence and charisma of these heroes, very little is heard from minor characters. Their voices and their good deeds are often drowned by the encomium sang for the bigger heroes. Except for cursory entries in the annuls of history, their names are often forgotten.
Another popular name in Greek mythology is Achilles. The son of decorated King Peleus of Phthia, and the cruel sea nymph, Thetis, Achilles is often mentioned for his heroics alongside equally courageous characters such as Hercules and Perseus. His ending was unfortunate but his story, especially his swan song during the Trojan War, is forever etched in the mind of devout readers and moviegoers alike. Whenever Achilles’ heroics are mentioned, another name inevitably comes up: Patroclus. However, Greek mythology offers very little about Patroclus.
In her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller gave a more audible voice to Patroclus. Patroclus is, himself, part of a royal bloodline, being the only son of King Menoitius, When he was young, he was summoned by his father and ordered to participate as one of the suitors of the fairest face in the Greek kingdom, King Tyndareus’ daughter, Helen. He contended with popular names like Menelaus, Agamemnon, and even Odysseus. During the gathering, all participants took an oath – that they will “uphold Helen’s choice” and they will “defend her husband against all who would take her from him.” As fate would have it, Helen chose Menelaus to be her husband.
“I saw then how I had changed. I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty? It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough.”~ Madeline Miller, The Song of Achielles
Patroclus’ life changed one day. He accidentally killed another boy, resulting to his exile from his home. He then found shelter in the court of King Peleus, where he was fostered along with other male outcasts from other Greek kingdoms. In King Peleus’ court, Patroclus crossed paths with Achilles. At a young age, he was honing his fighting skills. His extensive training is part of his preparation for his future role. A prophecy foretold that Achilles is going to be the Aristos Achaion, “the best of the Greeks”. Despite the initial ambivalence, and Thetis’ palpable displeasure, Patroclus and Achilles’ bond grew. They depended on each other. In each other’s company, they found comfort and camaraderie.
When she was younger, Miller was enamored by the story of Patroclus and Achilles after her mother read her Homer’s Iliad. Achilles captivated her but she also found Patroclus an equally excitable character albeit he is considered a minor character. This interest took a firmer shape, and in the process, she conjured an interesting narrative, rebuilding this mythical friendship. For ten years, whilst working as a Latin and Greek teacher, Madeline Miller worked on the manuscript of what would be a stellar debut novel. In September 2011, she made her long-awaited literary debut with the publication of The Song of Achilles. Despite being a debut novel, The Song of Achilles was a critical success. It was the proverbial dark horse, but it was awarded the 17th annual Orange Prize for Fiction.
The deep friendship and the unusual intimacy between Achilles and Patroclus have long been the subject of fascination for many a reader and scholar alike. Although it was never explicit, pieces of subtle evidence that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus went beyond ordinary comradeship were abundant in the original and the succeeding texts. Although there was a stigma, the romantic relationship between adult men was prevalent in ancient Greece. Over the course of history, it has been widely accepted, even by scholars of Greek mythology, that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.
War is one of the primary themes of the story, inevitably so as the story of Achilles concludes in the battlegrounds of the Trojan War. The horrors of war, the bloodshed, and the bloodlust were vividly incorporated into the story. However, it goes more than that as Miller explored the frailties of human emotions. Achilles was often mentioned to be someone who trusts easily. The novel also vividly depicted how the pride and ego of the few have the capacity to cause greater injury to the public. The Greek kings share the same megalomaniac complex. Patroclus even reiterated it to Achilles but it was for naught. “Hubris” is a useless human quality that can be costly on the battlefield. The story of Achilles is then, in parts, a cautionary tale.
“I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This, and this, and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender, or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.~ Madeline Miller, The Song of Achielles
In retelling the story of Achilles, Miller relied on several staples of Greek mythology. Several vivid elements of Greek mythology were palpably woven into the narrative. The novel underscored how easily the egos of the Greek gods are offended. To appease them, sacrifices are needed, even if it entails the death of a pure child. The gods’ disdain for mortals was also highlighted. Uncharacteristically, the gods were mostly absent, just mere manifestations. The gods made their presence felt only once in a while, a credit to Miller. It is rare that the gods play second fiddle to the mortals.
As the story moved forward, Miller’s intention became increasingly apparent. The Song of Achilles doesn’t project itself as a cursory retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus. In her debut work, she endeavored to give voices to ordinary characters readers easily discount as unimpressionable or forget. Whilst working on her manuscript, Miller was engrossed by the idea of exploring what Patroclus meant to Achilles. The voices of familiar names like Odysseus, Helen, Achilles, and even the gods barely resonated as the voices of Patroclus and, eventually, Briseis, permeated all throughout the story. With its vastness, Greek mythology is brimming with voices that want to be heard. It was the same resolve that resulted in the exploration of a vilified character in Miller’s second novel, Circe, where Circe was depicted not just as a villain but as a loving mother looking after the welfare of her child.
As interesting as the premise was, Miller’s prose was a little raw and was rough on the edges. The writing was inconsistent and uneven. The story also took time to develop. The first part, especially, dragged as Miller took her time laying out the landscape. Moments of tenderness between Achilles and Patroclus were spattered every now and then. They had their best moments when they were being trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of medicine and warfare. The story picked up pace as the story inevitably moved closer to the Trojan War.
Patroclus’ voice was dominant in the story. The readers see him not as a mere “friend” but someone who was also influential in molding Achilles’ character. His growth and development throughout the story were scintillating to read. However, in order to shed a better light on him, other characters were downplayed. Odysseus, for instance, was depicted as someone subservient to those who are in power. The biggest blunder, however, was Achilles. Achilles was barely heard from. He felt more like a caricature and he lacked a firmer mold. In elevating other characters, the other’s values were inevitably diminished. This is, perhaps, one of the values of Miller’s prose.
“At first it is strange. I am used to keeping him from her, to hoarding him for myself. But the memories well up like springwater, faster than I can hold them back. They do not come as words, but like dreams, rising as scent from the rain-wet earth. This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”~ Madeline Miller, The Song of Achielles
Despite its blunder, The Song of Achilles was still a compelling tale, a step out of the confines of the generic stories from the vast tomes of Greek mythology. The story was held together by Patroclus, who was a wonderful and wise storyteller. His voice was firm, consistent, and evocative. Miller put in her personal spin into this familiar story to conjure an inventive and imaginative narrative. The truth is that we only remember the heroes and the gods. The Patrocluses, Circes, and Briseises are easily drowned by the encomiums dedicated to these heroes. In retelling these stories from Greek mythology, Miller was also giving voices to characters the general public rarely hear from.
Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 26%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%
To be honest, I was apprehensive about buying and reading Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles when I first encountered it in the bookstands last 2016. Despite it winning the Orange Prize for Fiction, I wasn’t really too keen on reading novels that incorporate elements of Greek mythology. I love mythology, and Greek mythology above all. I feared that these novels won’t be up to par with the enchantment mythology evokes. My perspective changed after I read another Miller novel, Circe, in 2018. It was a superb retelling and it made me change my mind about The Song of Achilles. The Song of Achilles is also a good read. I found it a pleasant surprise when I realized that it was Patroclus who was narrating the story. Compared to Circe, I found The Song of Achilles rawer in terms of writing but Miller’s resolve remained clear all throughout. Miller has certainly earned a fan in me and I am looking forward to the next Greek mythology character she is going to write about.
Author: Madeline Miller
Publishing Date: 2012
Number of Pages: 369
Genre: Historical Fiction, War Story
Achilles, “the best of all the Greeks,” son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary King Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful – irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath.
They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
About the Author
To learn more about the Orange Prize-winning writer Madeline Miller, click here.