The Joy of Reading Mythological Retellings

“And as we swam, or played, or talked, a feeling would come. It was almost like fear, in the way it filled me, rising in my chest. It was almost like tears, in how swiftly it came. But it was neither of those, buoyant where they were heavy, bright where they were dull.”

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

The lasting impact of Greek mythology is present all around us. It’s fairly common to use the term “Achilles heel” when describing a weakness or flaw. We collectively understand that when you experience an odyssey you embark on an eventful and long journey. You may have even called someone a “narcissist” in the heat of an argument. These terms have permeated our vernacular, and the stories from which they originate were taught to us in school. So, what value is there in re-writing stories that are already so intrinsic in our society? When writing a mythological retelling, the writer must generate tension and suspense in stories in which we already know the outcome. In The Song of Achilles, the author, Madeline Miller, uses expressive and accessible prose and pulls from relevant themes to modernize the mythology. If you struggled to enjoy reading the Iliad in high school, please don’t count yourself out. The joy of reading mythological retellings is that you can relearn the legendary stories and understand the characters’ actions through a contemporary lens.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Iliad. For those who need a refresher, the epic poem takes place during a 10-year war fought between the Trojans and the Greeks. In Miller’s version, the story is told from the perspective of Patroclus, a minor character in the Iliad. In boyhood, Patroclus’ father banishes him to the land of Phthia where he meets the demigod, Achilles. Initially, Patroclus feels jealous of the prince’s good looks and physical prowess. Despite his apprehension, Patroclus and Achilles soon become inseparable. In many versions of the myth, Patroclus is depicted as a close friend and confidant to Achilles. In The Song of Achilles, their friendship as young boys develops into a romantic relationship that leads them to battle alongside each other in the Trojan War. In doing this, Madeline Miller offers a compelling plot twist that will satisfy 21st century readers without sacrificing the integrity of the myth’s origins.

The Song of Achilles flips the expected narrative by framing the story as a gay romance. Until recently, the implication that Achilles could be gay would have been harshly denounced. Historically, homosexuality has been silenced, stigmatized, and even criminalized. Since there’s now a renewed interest for stories that center around LGBTQ+ themes, there was an opportunity to explore the homoerotic undertones of Achilles relationship with Patroclus. This interpretation is particularly compelling because it complements the language of the original text and aligns with Ancient Greek societal attitudes toward same-sex relationships. In the Iliad, the dramatic way in which Achilles grieves when Patroclus dies implies that there was a strong affection at the root of their bond. Achilles goes so far as to keep Patroclus’ corpse with him in his tent while he grieves. Beyond the evidence from the text, there is also a common thread acceptance of homosexuality in Ancient Greek society as in the 21st century. Pederasty, a relationship between a young teen and a much older man, was fairly common in that time. Furthermore, Greco-Roman philosophers generally accepted that Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship was deeper than a friendship. In taking this approach, the story remains relevant for the cultural norms of the 21st century and fulfills what was possibly the implied nature of their relationship in the Iliad.

Seeing the organic development of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship makes it that much more devastating to anticipate their downfall. The early chapters of the novel develops their relationship as Achilles trains under the centaur, Chiron. Miller describes the passion of young love with insight and tenderness. These excerpts are particularly resonant because they capture the many emotions — jealousy, apprehension, nerves, excitement — that first love can bring. The author’s prose beautifully articulates how special it feels to be loved by someone that you love in return. As individuals and as a couple, Achilles and Patroclus experience a metamorphosis during their time in Troy. Through her eloquent character development, Miller makes an astute observation about how couples in long-term relationships can diverge over the years. Before leaving for war, they were privileged princes living in a utopia. The war changes Achilles into a ruthless and obstinate warrior while Patroclus becomes a healer. Readers might be surprised or even disappointed by how their dynamics change over the course of the war. I found it difficult to view Achilles’ character evolution through Patroclus’ perspective. It was heartbreaking to reflect on the unmarred joy of their youth after seeing how they act in the war. Though I knew what would happen to the characters, I still felt so invested in their relationship as if the story were new.

The value of creating mythological retellings is that writers have the opportunity to elaborate on an ever-growing literary fabric; Madeline Miller’s novels speak to the unique power of retellings to bridge classic stories with ongoing social discussions. I gave The Song of Achilles a 5-star rating because Miller’s storytelling abilities allowed me to connect with these characters in a way I was never able to previously. Since Madeline Miller’s books have earned commercial success, I notice she and other writers are ushering in a new era in publishing and storytelling. I can already see that mythological retellings have become a popular sub-genre in the world of fantasy fiction. Novels like The Silence of the Girls, Ariadne, and A Thousand Ships gained increased recognition in recent years. Many of these retellings likewise explore culturally relevant themes such as gay love, sexuality, and feminism. I urge you to check out these titles if you haven’t already! I’m excited to see what else Madeline Miller will publish because she has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary authors.

If you have the resources, please take the time to support a local bookshop to purchase The Song of Achilles. Here is a link to a bookstore in San Francisco called Green Apple Books:

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1 thought on “The Joy of Reading Mythological Retellings”

  1. Another excellent review while also offering options for other mythological re-tellings to sink our teeth into. Well done!

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