Prism PAST ~ Introduction and Review by Beverley ~ The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Our Community for Better or Worse

Hello Reader, although I hope there will be more than one! Welcome to my first edition of PRISM PAST This post is an introduction to what I hope will be a monthly look at LBGTQ Literature, which might not usually be covered on PBA.

Things are always changing so fast in our literary ‘community’ on Facebook, Goodreads and other social sites. We read books, new books are released; we advertise them, review them, fight for blog tours, guest posts and interviews. We defend our opinions and decisions, we fall out, make up and we gossip. We share our various, far flung, real life issues and sometimes hide them sharing the lives, we wish we had.

We support each other when we can and commiserate when we cannot. With the heartbreaking situation regarding Eric Arvin‘s health, we were witness to TJ Klune‘s pain, love and support of his fiance. It allowed us to help two of our own by breaking out of the virtual world in order to help in the real world. This was done by raising money, which we hoped would help ease things for them. We posted (and continue to post) music shuffles to bear witness to Eric and TJ that this community is waiting to welcome them back. We read TJ’s updates avidly and discuss the nuances of each, looking for nuggets of hidden information behind each word. We post comments, uplifting and/or comic items each hoping to help TJ in his dark days and entertain him in the better days.

So how does this relate to my PP spot? Well the one thing not mentioned above, is that we write, read and review LGBTQ books in a community where sexual orientation and gender politics are merely part of the many facets of love. Where love and loyalty, deserve love and loyalty in return. This post wants to slow us down a bit and take a look back. I am going to introduce, over the months, books written in or about times where such acceptance is the stuff of dreams and real life is hard, without this kind of escape, if you fall outside of society’s norms. Times where being gay meant being happy or you were in trouble and where Eric and TJ could never have become engaged; let alone in front of an audience including a virtual one, full of love, laughter and no thought of anything but acceptance and happiness.

The LGBTQ community still has a long way to go before it can truly have equality, to live and love in the way we would wish, without judgement or abuse. However, the stories represented by the texts I will review and present for discussion, remind us just how far we have come.

The first novel I present to you is ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller, winner of ‘The Orange Prize for Fiction’ 2012.


This is a novel, which presents Homer’s Illiad from a slightly different perspective, that of Patroclus’, whose name would be forgotten in history except for his connection with the great hero, and demi god Achilles and the Trojan war. There are reviews, amongst the clamour of praise and 5*, which suggest this story ‘teenage’ and ‘hormonal’ in the way it was written, and it is. This is not necessarily a criticism, these boys, these two, demi god and prince are teenagers in love. The true Illiad or rather many of it’s translations, are beautiful, but they are not interpreted as the writings of teenage boys in love. The Illiad is a bible for Greek scholars and and Classicists, as is the ‘sequel’ to The Odyssey, which follows the return of Odysseus from the Trojan wars. They were written by Homer, which may be one writer in an age of oral histories or it could just mean ‘men’ the ones who told these stories down the years. The story of Patroclus and Achilles is a small part of a glorious whole. It is however, a contentious part. Scholars rarely agree with each other over ancient texts – I think it’s an unwritten rule – and the story of Achilles and Patroclus is no exception. Ancient Greek society was not against homosexuality per se in fact rich men often found richer older men to ‘mentor’ their sons until manhood, usually about sixteen, and these relationships were sometimes sexual. As girls were expected to remain virginal (as far as boys were concerned), boys on reaching puberty would use male and female slaves for sex. However, the slaves were never ‘loved’ or treated as friends; rape was rife with no recourse and young boys who were companions to rich men were not sexual partners after manhood. This seems strange to us now but this was the way of this civilisation for hundreds of years. The reason that this relationship was deemed wrong in Greek eyes – and I suggest – in many scholars eyes, is that it was love and it lasted beyond puberty, and thus a true homosexual love affair.

In addition for those of the time the path that should have belonged to the favoured hero and Prince – Achilles – was clouded by the presence of Patroclus. The true homophobia, in this writing of the story, comes from Achilles‘ Mother the Goddess, Thetis. This book is romantic in every sense of the word and the teenage element is, I feel, correct for the narrator. For the story is told through Patroclus’ eyes, even after his death in his early twenties. It starts from his childhood as the ‘failed’ Prince of an abusive, weak Father. At nine years old he is sent to try and gain the hand of ‘Helen‘ in marriage. She of course marries Menelaus, and becomes the excuse for the Trojan war. Patroclus is banished by his father, after he accidentally kills a bully, to the court of Peleus where Patroclus meets Achilles.

The novel is full of the Greek deities, heroes and mythological figures, but they are written in everyday situations and accepted as real. This is enjoyable and even more so if, like me, you lived for reading mythology, as a child. (Ok I was a bit of a geek, I suppose) There is gay sex, but as you will see it is poetic and romantic in style,

Our mouths opened under each other, and the warmth of his sweetened throat poured into mine. I could not think, could not do anything but drink him in, each breath as it came, the soft movements of his lips. It was a miracle.

This was their first physical encounter and it went on

I was trembling, afraid to put him to flight. I did not know what to do, what he would like. I kissed his chest, and tasted salt. He seemed to swell beneath my touch, to ripen.

This scene continues until they both climax – for the first time with someone else – and it is very fumbled with a lot of ‘trembling’, but they are fifteen and have no experience. There is a lot of poetic description throughout the thoughts of the narrator, but his love and awe shine through when Achilles says ‘Patroclus,’ and he remarks to the reader,

‘He was always better with words than I.’

The Song of Achilles is the part of the Illiad that most affects these two players in the Trojan war. Fate decrees that they will both die young and will not return from the War but also blocks their attempts to avoid this. This includes ‘Thetis‘ stealing Achilles away, to hide him as a female dancer in a far off land. The war is futile, and like most wars, born of greed not romantic notions of kidnapped beauties, like Helen of Troy. Achilles, knowing his life will most likely end, attends the war because he wants the glory and immortality that is bestowed on dead heroes.

‘…I do not think I can bear it…’ he said, at last. His eyes closed, as if against the horrors. I knew he spoke not of his death but of the nightmare Odysseus had spun, the loss of his brilliance, the withering of his grace. I had seen the joy he took in his own skill, the roaring vitality that was always just beneath the surface. Who was he if not miraculous, and radiant? Who was he if not destined for fame? ‘I would not care,’I said…’Whatever you became…We would be together.’

This is the crux of their story. Even though they know that in all probability both will die young, Achilles cannot face a normal life, growing old with the man he loves, whereas it’s all Patroclus wants.

Patroclus tries to change Achilles‘ fate knowing that each will die in this war. In his attempt to stop Achilles fighting Hector, who it is foretold will be the cause of Achilles‘ death, Patroclus unwittingly ensures that it will happen and loses his own life first, to Hector. The narrator remains the same throughout the last sections of the book as Patroclus narrates from limbo and witnesses the disintegration of Achilles, who keeps Patroclus‘s body with him in his bed. Patroclus cannot leave Limbo until his ashes are buried and their resting place marked. Destroyed by grief, Achilles avenges his lover’s death, by killing ‘Hector‘ and dishonouring the body, driving everyday past the walls of Troy with Hector’s body behind his chariot. Hector‘s father, the king of Troy

Priam‘ comes at night to Achilles‘ camp to beg for the body. Finally Priam says,

That is- your friend? ‘Philtatos’, Achilles says, sharply. Most Beloved. ‘Best of men, and slaughtered by your son’. ‘I am sorry for your loss’, Priam says. ‘And sorry that it was my son who took him from you…’

Recognising their mutual grief Achilles releases the body of Hector, to Priam for burial rites. During this time Achilles finally allows the body of Patroclus to be burned on the Funeral Pyre however, it is Achilles who collects his ashes, which was a woman’s job, places them in the finest urn and orders,

When I am dead, I charge you to mingle our ashes and bury us together.

Following Hector‘s death many come with one thought, to kill the hero Achilles. He is now unkempt and has no wish to live, but none manage to kill him as his instincts and skills are too wonderous. Finally, it is a cowardly arrow from behind a tower aided by the god Apollo that shoots Achilles in the heart.

‘…He closes his eyes and feels its point push through his skin, parting thick muscle, worming its way past the interlacing fingers of his ribs. There, at last is his heart…Achilles smiles as his face strikes the earth.

This is not quite the end. The last chapter is the most heartbreaking and the one, which really highlights the homophobia that plagues these two wonderful men throughout their short lives. Achilles‘ son (you will just have to read the book!) will not let Patroclus‘ name be marked on the tomb with Achilles, thus keeping him in limbo and away from Achilles for eternity,

‘He is a blot on my father’s honour, and a blot on mine. I will not allow it.’

Patroclus contacts Odysseus, through dreams and thought. Odysseus tries to plead that Patroclus and Achilles were as married as he and his wife but to no avail. The Greeks finally go home after the war’s end leaving Patroclus trapped on this plane away from Achilles…what happens and who helps I’ll leave for you to find out, but I’d advise hankies throughout this epic novel.

In March I will be looking at…it will be announced later. If you have any ideas of books to present here, LGBTQ books maybe published a while ago that wouldn’t usually appear on our blog site.

Author’s Bio

Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. For the last ten years she has been teaching and tutoring Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students. She also studied in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA, where she teaches and writes. The Song of Achilles is her first novel.

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Farewell Giveaway
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.

Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

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4 thoughts on “Prism PAST ~ Introduction and Review by Beverley ~ The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

  1. Thank you for the interesting post. I wouldn’t have been aware of this book if not for this post so thank you for that. I’ve put it on my wishlist.

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