Randall Ham sits down with Madeline Miller to talk about her award-winning novel of love between men.
1. Greek myths have a habit of not adhering to continuity, rather fitting the setting to which it is told. The story of Achilles is a perfect example (The story of his heel, of Thetis ‘burning’ his mortality away). Was it difficult reconciling different sources as you brought them together for this narrative?
Thank you for having me on The Good Men Project!
It was a bit of a challenge because of the wealth of material about Achilles’ life, but my anchor was always Homer and the Iliad—I drew as much as possible from that, and then used other sources to fill in. As you note, this meant that I ended up leaving out the detail about Achilles that has become most famous: his vulnerable heel. In the Iliad, there’s no mention of it: Achilles is simply an incredibly powerful, but mortal, warrior.
2. The Greeks in this novel are much less ‘noble’ than they are usually depicted in various stories and myths. What made you decide to make them so?
Again, I took my inspiration from Homer. Although the great bard was himself a Greek, from the very first line of the Iliad (“Sing, Goddess, of the destructive rage of Achilles”), he doesn’t shy away from showing us these men, faults and all. In fact, one of the most admirable characters in the entire poem is actually a Trojan—the noble warrior-prince Hector. It was this commitment to realism that made me appreciate the stories so deeply. Homer doesn’t give us sanitized heroes, but full, flawed people who often struggle against themselves. It was important for me to preserve that in my own version.
3. Many times, the telling of the Trojan War is told from the Gods looking down on humans. Your narrative is from the humans looking up. Almost every mention of the Gods (aside from Thetis) is through the eyes (or ears) of the people involved in the conflict. Did you ever consider making the Gods more present in the story?
I didn’t. For me, Patroclus’ voice and perspective were the foundation of the book. I wanted to tell a traditionally epic and heroic story in a deeply personal way. The gods enter into the story, but Patroclus is the one bearing witness.
4. Was it more difficult to write Thetis, with her divinity?
One thing I have always loved about the ancient gods is how utterly terrifying they are, just as likely to smite you as come to your aid. The ancient storytellers did an incredible job of invoking that sheer and merciless power: in particular, I think of myths like Artemis and the poor hunter Actaeon, where the goddess has him devoured by his own dogs, simply for stumbling upon her in the bath; or Zeus, who reveals himself in his full glory to the mortal Semele, and incinerates her. In creating Thetis, I wanted to capture that feeling of the gods as profoundly alien, beings to whom the life or pain of an individual human means nothing. But at the same time I have also always been moved by Thetis’ powerlessness in the face of her son’s destiny. No matter how much she loves him, and how hard she tries, she cannot save him. That sort of contradiction is an author’s dream.
5. The dynamic between Achilles and Patroclus is especially intriguing. Patroclus has no ambition to be famous or be a leader. He basically wants to settle down and have a life with Achilles. Achilles, on the other hand is torn between his love for Patroclus, his desire to be famous, and the prophecy that hangs around him like a noose. It is ultimately Patroclus’ selfless love for Achilles that drives him to help Achilles achieve his dream of being famous. It is another timeless aspect of this story. Was this something you read into the Greek myths, or something you came up with on your own?
One of the things that that fascinated me about the character of Patroclus is how he is able to ignore the all-consuming ancient Greek obsession with excellence. In the stories of the Trojan War, being “the best” is what all heroes strive towards. After Achilles’ death, Agamemnon is supposed to give Achilles’ armor to the next best warrior, and when he chooses Odysseus instead of Ajax, Ajax’s rage and grief are so extreme that he ends up killing himself.
By contrast, Patroclus seems perfectly happy in the Iliad to be in Achilles’ shadow—he never competes with Achilles in any way, but neither is he subservient. When the two men speak, they always speak as absolute emotional equals. I thought that showed a tremendous strength in Patroclus: he knows who he is and isn’t afraid to stand apart. And, in the end, he’s honored for it. After his death, the Greeks fight fiercely to protect his body not because of his prowess in battle, but because he was “gentle” and “kind to all.”
6. Odysseus is the only supporting character who tries to redeem himself in the story. Was this written with an eye towards his later adventures in ‘The Odyssey?’
When I was writing the character of Odysseus, I absolutely had my eye on the Odyssey, as well as other ancient text that feature him prominently. He’s one of the most storied characters in the Trojan War mythology, and I wanted to make sure that I was representing the full scope of his very complex personality. I particularly enjoyed bringing to life his relentless pragmatism and skill with manipulation. Even in the Odyssey—in which he is ostensibly the hero—he’s not exactly virtuous. He lies his way through the entire trip home, and it is his own pride and avarice which get him into trouble with the gods in the first place. He and Achilles make wonderful foils for each other, each flawed but in very different ways.
7. Are you considering writing any other novels from Greek myths?
I am. As I noted above, I enjoyed writing Odysseus and would love to finish his story. I’m also drawn to the amazing and brilliant female characters of the Odyssey, particularly Odysseus’ wife Penelope, and the witch Circe. Hopefully it won’t take me another ten years to finish!
Read our review of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles here!