Classic VS Retelling

Photo by Nicole Rees-Williams.

Words by Bonnie Wileman

Most of us had our introduction to Greek mythology as kids, whether singing along to Disney’s Hercules or immersing ourselves in the Percy Jackson series. The Greek gods have become household names despite the fact we no longer pray to them or leave them offerings in the form of a sacrificed goat, and although our childhood favourites revived this culture, it’s modern retellings of Ancient Greek classics that reignite its magic.

Homer’s Iliad is pretty much uncontested as a Greek epic, with the exception of the Odyssey. It portrays the highs and lows of war, steeped in violence and offering the image of thousands upon thousands raising their weapons in a battle cry that shakes the Earth before plundering towards their own end. See: gold plated men streaked with blood, angrily plotting their victory whilst also waging war with each other in petty ways. It has been retold and reshaped again and again in popular culture, stretched and moulded to fit a target audience vastly different to a bunch of ancient Greeks sitting around a campfire. Madeline Miller’s retelling may join the rest of these adaptations in the pursuit to bring Homer’s scenes at Troy back to life, but what she does differently, she excels in. The Song of Achilles injects tenderness into a story fuelled in blood and violence, and in doing so, Miller makes it new.

The most obvious difference between Homer’s Iliad and The Song of Achilles is Miller’s emphasis on the story of Achilles and Patroclus being a romantic one. They are lovers, their backgrounds explored in detail, their bond so strong it impacts heavily on the outcome of the Trojan war. That’s not to say the Iliad itself doesn’t hint at a similar level of affection- having read both the Iliad and The Song of Achilles, I was surprised to find in the Iliad that the terms of endearment were common and laid on thick. Achilles calls Patroclus his beloved, mourns for him like a lover, and his bonds with women are seemingly borne out of his position of power and ability to possess rather than genuine connection. 

Where Homer’s Iliad leaves their relationship up to interpretation, however, Miller makes it clear where she stands. In an interview with The Guardian, Miller says, “I think that now we are at a place in our culture where we can re-accept that interpretation of the story […] it felt like it was a love story already, but I sometimes think the idea of them as lovers has been a little bit whitewashed from the record”. Achilles and Patroclus are given the freedom to be in love, and this difference, besides the beautiful prose, is what makes The Song of Achilles such a brilliant retelling.

From the war focused Troy (2004) in which Patroclus becomes Achilles’ cousin (yes, his cousin), to the later miniseries Troy: Fall of a City (2017), the Iliad has been explored through film and TV, too, in an attempt to capture Homer’s epic poem in a consumable way. But none quite reach the perfect blend of emotion, mythology and conflict that Miller manages in The Song of Achilles. She explores the lives of both Achilles and Patroclus from boyhood using details from other ancient stories, giving us a context and humanity that the Iliad (and many film adaptations) doesn’t. We see their lives intertwine early on, watch them grow into young men with passions and flaws- and that’s exactly what Miller does to revive these characters for a new generation. 

Though the story strays from an exact retelling in certain ways the essence of the Iliad itself is still captured, enabling the ancient poem to breathe fresh air in modern times. Perhaps that’s why The Song of Achilles is such a raved about book for many who love Greek mythology- or even just good LGBT representation. Miller brings Ancient Greece into a twenty-first century context, and in doing so, the culture lives on.