The Song of Achilles: Love emphasized by death | Teen Ink

The Song of Achilles: Love emphasized by death

January 28, 2023
By carriezhouyn BRONZE, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
carriezhouyn BRONZE, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
1 article 2 photos 0 comments

The author Madeline Miller is an American novelist. Studied Classics herself, she later became a teacher of Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare for high school students. Due to her experience in the Classics, her books are mostly based on Greek Mythology. One of her famous works is The Song of Achilles, which won her the Orange Prize for Fiction.

The Song of Achilles is a novel focused on the retelling of a classic Greek Myths of Achilles and Patroclus. The first written version of the story between Achilles and Patroclus is believed to be The Iliad, a series of famous epics by Homer. The Iliad describes the famous Trojan War, where Achilles and Patroclus both lost their lives. Miller once revealed in her own website, “The biggest changes to the mythology came with the stories about Achilles’ life before he came to Troy, which the Iliad doesn’t cover” (Miller). This book builds on the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus which is emphasized through the concept of death. It is an emotional book that very well depicts the growth of the characters both physically and mentally. Through the epical death of both characters, their love for each other is sublimed to a different level.

The romantic story between Achilles and Patroclus develops from a unique perspective and is very effective in terms of communicating the love Patroclus has for Achilles. Though the story centers around the son of Thetis and Peleus, the greatest Greek hero of all time, the narrator of the book is Patroclus, and the story itself follows the life of Patroclus. The development of a romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus follows a chronological order. The first appearance of Achilles in the story is glamorous. Patroclus’s description of him when they first met is one of worship and admiration, a feeling he has to the very end of their lives, and even in the underworld. “My eye catches on a light head among dozens of dark, tousled crowns. I lean forward to see. Hair lit like honey in the sun, and within it, glints of gold—the circlet of a prince.” (Miller 7) The nonchanging description of “honey in the sun” throughout the book provides an insight of Patroclus’s love for Achilles. For him, Achilles is the sun that he always looks up to, he always tells the story of his Achilles with the most admiration and love.

On the other hand, the love that Achilles has for Patroclus is less obvious. Not that Achilles doesn’t love Patroclus, but the extend or extremity is less profound. Achilles treats Patroclus differently comparing to everyone else. “To my lyre lesson. So, as you say, it will not be a lie. After, we will speak with my father.” (Miller 27) A special offer made by Achilles to Patroclus so that Patroclus will not be punished by the King indicates how special Patroclus is for Achilles, this is only the second time they talk to each other. It is not something Patroclus normally do.
Later in the story, after the romantic relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is established, there are more signs of love form Achilles. “Only my eyes felt like my own, larger and darker than his. He kissed me, catching me up in a soft, opened warmth that breathed sweetness into my throat. Then he took my hand and we went outside to the Myrmidons.” (Miller 210) Achilles kissed Patroclus before Patroclus goes to the battle, showing his love and worries for Patroclus. However, it is not comparable to the deep love presented in every word in Patroclus’s Narration.

The real extent of the love Achilles has for Patroclus is only shown after the death of Patroclus himself. In her personal website Miller made the following statement:

For me, the most compelling piece of evidence, aside from the depth of Achilles’ grief, is how he grieves: Achilles refuses to burn Patroclus’ body, insisting instead on keeping the corpse in his tent, where he constantly weeps and embraces it—despite the horrified reactions of those around him. That sense of physical devastation spoke deeply to me of a true and total intimacy between the two men (Miller).

Staying true to the Homer’s version of the story, the deep grief of Achilles is presented in detail. “He cradles me, and will not eat, nor speak a word other than my name. I see his face as if through water, as a fish sees the sun. His tears fall, but I cannot wipe them away.” (Miller 249) Achilles keeps the body of Patroclus, which he knew would prevent the ghost of his lover to enter the underworld. He loves Patroclus so much that he wants to keep his ghost with him. Afterward, though he burns the body of Patroclus, but he says to his comrades that “When I am dead, I charge you to mingle our ashes and bury us together” (Miller 258). It is a great promise in Ancient Greek Mythology which this book is based on. Burying together bonds them in the underworld, where they will be bonded together until everything on earth turns to dust and disappears in the universe.

For Patroclus too, his love of Achilles is advanced by his death. He is willing to stay with Achilles in the world of sunlight where he doesn’t belong. He keeps Achilles companied when he could. Though bonded near his ashes, Patroclus never complains about his situation. It is only when Achilles goes to the underworld and leaving himself in the world of sunlight that he says “Do not let it be so. Do not leave me here without him.” (Miller 263) Patroclus’s fear comes only from the fact that he will be separated from his lover and nothing else.

The love between Patroclus and Achilles after they are separated by death is the most engaging part of the story. They all show deep love and rich emotions to each other in their own ways, which aren’t showed through their interactions when they are alive. With the death of the two major characters in the book, comes the most controversial questions: Is the ending a happy ending? Achilles and Patroclus meet each other again in the underworld: “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” (Miller 271). It is open to the interpretation of the readers whether they live in the underworld happily ever after or lost their memories in “the hopeless, heavy dusk”.

Madeline Miller,
Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles. New York City, Ecco, 2012.

The author's comments:

The Song of Achilles was suggested to me by my teacher during summer vacation. At first, the book seemed like a ordinary fiction with nothing special, but as it progresses I fall in love with the characters and was amazed by the love between Achilles and Patroclus. Reading this book boosted my interest in Ancient Greek Mythology, and inspired me to create a research project about the understanding of death is Ancient Greece. When collecting information for my project, I read The Song of Achilles again and found it more intriguing than ever, that's when I decided to write a book review and share my thoughts on the book with other people.

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