For a geek, Madeline Miller is very quick to laugh. Her first book, The Song of Achilles won her the Orange Prize for 2012. It seems a bit of an unlikely venture for the rather reedy-looking Miller to take on Achilles whose legend has endured thousands of years. In her book, she writes emphatically about Achilles’ love for Patroclus. While there have been suggestions about their relationship in various scholarly papers, Miller says outright that they were lovers.
Why did you pick on Achilles for your first book?
Achilles has always been a very interesting character to me because he is so young and so flawed. From almost the first time he appears in the Iliad, the assertion has been on his flaws. He was always causing pain to everyone. Also he is a very honest character. And I was very intrigued by the tragedy of his life. When he was a teenager, he was given this choice. That he could grow old and die in oblivion or he could die young and be famous forever. And he chooses the latter and has to live with that choice forever. It is fascinating to understand the choices you would make knowing you have very little time. In all, I thought his life was so sad, it compelled me to try and understand him better.
And the thread of the book is his love for Patroclus. Why was that more important to you than the wars he waged and his heroism?
His relationship with Patroclus was extremely intriguing. He is the only Greek hero who is called “gentle”. And he is the most important person in Achilles’ life. As in, he (Achilles) is this warrior, a killing machine and the person most important to his life is this gentle soul.Their love is extremely interesting to explore.
You make the leap of faith in asserting that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. What made you so sure?
The earliest version of what we know about their relationship is the Iliad. And Homer doesn’t say that they were lovers. But he also does not say that they were not lovers. So over the years, there has been research into that. And I said, of course he doesn’t say they are lovers because it was so obvious. Many scholars assumed they were lovers... I came from a long tradition of people making the assumption that they were lovers. But for me, what really clinched it in my head is how deeply Achilles grieves Patroclus’ death. I am convinced that such depths of grief could only come from a passionate love. And he grieves by touching the body. He just can’t let the body go.
How hard is it to write ancient stories in a modern narrative?
Although the stories are old and the culture has changed a lot and many things about the ancient world seem alien. But the people who lived then are exactly like us. For me, the story has always been very modern. They are stories about parents and children, husbands and wives, about friends. For me it wasn’t hard to make it feel modern because it was modern to me. What I wanted to do was take these characters that are us and bring them to a modern audience and take away the parts that are alienating.
You do not mention the story of Achilles’ heel in your book.
The most famous story about Achilles is about his heel. But it is not in the Iliad. So I din’t put it. A lot of readers interpreted it to mean that he doesn’t have an actual heel but a symbolic one—that being his love for Patroclus. And they told me that is so smart of me. And I have to point out that well, I hadn’t thought about it, but thank you for bringing it up. Readers draw a lot of threads that you don’t see and that is fascinating.
Did you worry that researching and writing the book would be seen as a geeky exercise?
I have been a geek my whole life. So I have accepted it.