By Mia Brady
Madeline Miller has been enthralled with the Classics since her childhood spent in New York City. She was mesmerized by the Greek galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, eager to one day learn the languages of the ancient statue inscriptions. From her high school years, taking Latin courses and learning Greek on the side, to attending Brown and receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek, to studying at the Yale School of Drama, and, now, to teaching Latin and Greek─Miller has been actively passionate about the epic tales of ancient Greece for her entire life. This devout lover of Classics has reconstructed the story of Greece’s most valued warrior in her first novel, The Song of Achilles, in a way that portrays her deep passion, knowledge, and study of the epic tales of ancient Greece.
The Song of Achilles is a beautiful novel that tells so much more than the tale of Achilles and his battles in the Trojan War. Before being transported to Troy, the reader first learns of the years Achilles spent before he became a renowned warrior, and most importantly, how his path crossed with the person he loved so profoundly. The book details the relationship of these very different men, Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis and Greece’s most prized warrior, and Patroclus, an exiled prince. Told from Patroclus’ perspective, The Song of Achilles provides a raw account of Achilles as more than a warrior, but as a man. What makes this novel a standout is the impeccable personal tribute that Miller pays to her characters. Miller tells a tale that has been told for centuries on end, but recreates what is known in an imaginative and moving way.
Miller says she has always been fascinated by the mysterious moment in The Iliad when Patroclus is killed, and Achilles is irrevocably devastated. “Patroclus is a minor character, he doesn’t seem particularly spectacular, and I wanted to answer the questions of ‘why’. We know that Achilles is the mot amazing warrior of the Greeks. He’s the most beautiful, he’s the fastest, he’s the most valued person in the Greek army. And yet the person he most values is someone who seems kind of quiet, and on the edges, and I was interested in the story behind that,” says Miller.
The sharp characterization that makes this novel so special and unique for a retelling of The Iliad was born from Miller’s interest in description. Miller was intrigued by the differences in Homer’s description of Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles is described as the ultimate killing machine and the bloodiest warrior, yet the person that he is closest to is in fact described as gentle in The Iliad. Miller conducted many months of academic research on Achilles and Patroclus during her time at Brown, as she initially thought she was going to write her undergraduate thesis on them. Over the ten years that Miller wrote the book, she was teaching as well as directing Shakespeare’s plays, and she attributes her intricate characterization of Achilles and Patroclus to theater. “When I was thinking about these characters, I really did imagine them as if they were on a stage. When I’m writing a scene, I’m seeing it happen before me,” says Miller.
While studying at the Yale School of Drama, Miller specialized in the adaption of classical tales for a modern audience, and there is no question that The Song of Achilles displays her expertise quite strongly. The characters of Achilles and Patroclus are thousands of years old, yet the themes of love and sacrifice present in their relationship are just as real today as ever.
Miller is undoubtedly a worthy recipient of the Orange Prize for Fiction, a prestigious honor that she refers to as a dream come true. The Song of Achilles was born from Miller’s passion for the Classics, for the tales of ancient Greece, and the characters they honor. “I love these stories. I love to teach them. I love to share them. It is the ultimate compliment if it is either able to introduce someone, if the story is new, or to reinspire someone who already knows them and who is revisiting them,” says Miller.
Miller has rewritten the story of Achilles and Patroclus in a way that provokes a deep understanding of characterization. Achilles is more than a warrior, and Patroclus is more than his companion. The Song of Achilles sheds light on a love story that that has been told and retold for many centuries, and will be for many more.
Mia Brady is a senior at Elon University majoring in English with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric. Elon is home to the Eta of North Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.