In this debut novel, we are presented with a fresh, re-imagining and re-telling of the familiar story of Achilles, not just the wrathful Achilles of Homer, but the young Achilles, growing up, meeting his friend and lover Patroclus, living with the centaur Chiron, and learning from him. Achilles is the “best of the Greeks,” the aristos achaion, at least on the battlefield no one can match his speed and strength.
There is no incontrovertible evidence in The Iliad, by the way, that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. It is true that homosexual lovers were common among the men of ancient Greece—indeed, the Theban Sacred Band, the elite of the Theban army, consisted of 150 pairs of male lovers– and the ancients interpreted the tenderness Achilles shows toward Patroclus as evidence that they were lovers, but no where is that confirmed in the Iliad.
But Miller’s Patroclus and Achilles are definitely lovers, and Patroclus, from whose point of view Miller’s tale is told, is not a powerful warrior like Achilles. Instead, he becomes a healer, a doctor if you will, who treats the wounded Greeks as they return from battle with the Trojans, and tries to protect captive Trojan women, like Breseis, from ravishment by the Greeks. Miller’s Patroclus is so soft-hearted that he can’t bear to see the Greeks swept away by Hector and the Trojans after Agamemnon takes Breseis away from Achilles and withdraws from battle. He is so soft-hearted that he begs Achilles to let him wear Achilles’ armor into battle, knowing as he does that the mere sight of Achilles on the battlefield will lend strength and courage to the Greeks.
Even though Achilles instructs Patroclus not to engage in any fighting, Patroclus does, killing several Trojans, only to be killed by Hector. Achilles anger is great; that’s why the sub-title of The Iliad is The Wrath of Achilles. Achilles, who has always been a great killer, goes on a real killing binge after Patroclus death, and after he kills Hector he desecrates the corpse. Only when King Priam comes to Achilles tent in the night to beg for the body of his son does Achilles relent.
Miller’s version of the epic is almost all about the Greeks. In Homer’s version, we hear from the gods and learn about the Trojans, especially Hector and his wife, Andromache, and infant son, Astyanax, who is murdered by Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, after Troy falls. In fact, modern readers have often sympathized more with the Trojans than with the Greeks. That is not a problem in Miller’s version. We hardly know the Trojans, but we do know Patroclus and Achilles, both of whom are brought wonderfully to life. The story is both brilliant and compelling. Miller’s prose is graceful and crystalline, almost magical. The novel is simply a terrific, almost hypnotic, read