A modern classic reminds us what it means to be human
Madeline Miller’s debut novel is a poignant reminder that everything in love and war is not fair. But there is hope, for despite Achilles’ prideful rage, his best friend and lover shows us what the best of humanity looks like.
When Achilles rages against Hector in Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, Hector is wearing Achilles’ armor. The armor’s breastplate is emblazoned with an unmistakable phoenix — a detail you’d be hard-pressed to find in the original myth. “It looks, almost, as if Achilles is chasing himself,” writes Miller.1
The source of Achilles’ rage
For those who haven’t read Homer’s The Iliad, this scene is the hub around which the entire wheel of the story spins. After much dick-measuring with Agamemnon, Achilles throws a hissy-fit.2 This results in his absence from the battlefield, a huge advance by the Trojan army, and the death of many Greeks.
To ward off the Trojan army, Achilles’ best pal and lover, Patroclus, straps on Achilles’ armor and races onto the battlefield in a chariot.3 Just the sight of Achilles is enough to scare the Trojans. They retreat to the city walls.
This is where it all goes wrong. Patroclus is thrown off the chariot and must fight a warrior named Sarpedon. Patroclus defeats Sarpedon, but the ruse is up. Everybody now realizes that this is not the great warrior Achilles. Hector hunts down the imposter and quickly kills Patroclus.
Achilles is infuriated by the death of his friend, forgets his quarrel with Agamemnon, and goes berserk in his pursuit of Hector. Hector, who is wearing Achilles’ armor. Hector, who is the Trojan equivalent of Achilles. Hector, who is (metaphorically) Achilles.4
Destined for fame
You see, from the very beginning, there was something about Miller’s Achilles. Something I couldn’t put my finger on. He had an innocence, a naivety, something readers of T. H. White’s Once and Future King would recognize in the young King Arthur.
When Achilles first meets Odysseus, he is in hiding. But Odysseus, that wily S.O.B., in Miller’s words “unmasks” him. Patroclus sees through Odysseus’ B.S., but says nothing. “I would not be the raven on his shoulder all the time, predicting gloom,” he muses.5
From an early age, Achilles is naturally gifted. He’s good at playing the lyre, he’s good at fighting, and he’s good-looking. He does it all without effort. Everyone wants to be him. For Achilles, though, this is a burden. When he arrives in Troy, he is already considered aristos achaean, best of the Greeks. He is destined for fame.6
Achilles has nothing to strive toward. His constant refusal to fight Hector because Hector “has done nothing to him” is simply delaying the inevitable. And with every moment Achilles’ fate is delayed, more Greeks die. When Hector has finally “done something” to Achilles, there is no more reason for Achilles to care about the war’s end. His world has crumbled around him.
Achilles chasing himself
From the beginning, Achilles has been chasing himself. He’s been after his own glory. As Odysseus says, “Success…comes only through men sewn to a single purpose.”7 And Achilles’ single purpose has always been his own glory, which is intimately tied to his death.
Where Patroclus was dedicated to Achilles, to his fellow Greeks, to humane practices in depraved situations, Achilles only cared about Achilles. He strove for his fame and nothing else. This, the Greeks called hubris.
And in the pursuit of his own fame, he bred a certain infamy. As Odysseus muses, “Fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred by another.”8 In Song of Achilles, Achilles’ petulance casts him as an antihero, and perhaps even a villain.
Patroclus is the true hero here. It is his glory, Miller seems to suggest, that will stand the test of time.
What can The Song of Achilles teach us?
So what does this mean for modern readers?9 What does The Iliad and Miller’s rendition tell us about the universal human condition? How can we use this text to achieve some sort of greatness today?
First, we can grab a few nuggets of wisdom from Achilles’ hubristic act of “chasing himself:”
- People who want the result without putting in the work doom themselves. Achilles does little to shape his life. He accepts fate and ruins himself, his countrymen, and the ones he loves in the process.
- Prideful decision-making gets you nowhere. If Achilles had put his pride aside and took Patroclus as an example, he might’ve truly been the best of Greeks and his deeds may have better stood the test of time.10
- Success founded on self-interest is short-lived. We see Agamemnon and Achilles win small battles (on the battlefield and in arguments against each other), but in the end no one wins. Each time they gain a step forward, fate pushes them back two more.
Second, Patroclus’ dedication to uplifting humanity in an environment depraved by war also teaches us a thing or two about how we can live our best lives:
- Service to others will always outlast self-interest. Patroclus seems to embody what motivational speakers the world over call success through service. He puts others’ first and works to satisfy their best interests without ulterior motive.
- Principles always outweigh pride. In one of Achilles’ weakest moments of “chasing himself,” he allows Agamemnon to steal away Breseis, knowing that if Agamemnon lays a hand on her (something he fully intends to do), all the Greeks will turn against the king. Patroclus, however, tells Agamemnon of the plot even though it betrays Achilles’ plan. He does this because the safety of Breseis — and human dignity — is more important than his or Achilles’ pride.
- It is dangerous to be anything but yourself. When Patroclus puts on Achilles’ armor, he essentially becomes “the best of Greeks.” The problem was, he was already the best of Greeks, and putting on the armor only makes him Achilles. As Achilles, he lets pride get the best of him, pushes too far, and pays his life for it.
The best humanity has to offer
In Song of Achilles, Miller cuts through the toxicity of the Greek heroes’ petulant actions and finds a worthy modern-day hero among them. Patroclus is the hero risen from the ashes of Achilles’ rage — and the Greeks’ rage. Without Achilles, he is without pride. Patroclus is truly aristos achaean, the greatest of Greeks, and by extension, the best humanity has to offer.
– Mike Doane
P.S. It doesn't have to end like this
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