Modern Fiction and Ancient Greek Mythology

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From Shakespeare to Margaret Atwood, famous authors throughout history have maintained a fascination with putting their own stamp on the myths of Ancient Greece. The authors of today have continued this trend. Madeline Miller’s book, The Song of Achilles, is one example of this. Though it is now ten years old, the book has found renewed popularity through social media. This year, Natalie Haynes made waves (pun intended) with A Thousand Ships. Both books have applied modern sensibilities to the gruesome tale of the Trojan War. After reading both this year, I wondered how the two authors came to their different interpretations. Compared to the original Iliad, both authors certainly wished to impress their own specific messages upon the reader. Spoilers ahead for both books!

The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles tells of the romance between Patroclus and Achilles. We see them enjoy their shared childhood before they are plucked by Odysseus and destiny to join the Greeks in the Trojan War. Scholars both ancient and modern have debated the nature of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Some believe that the two were simply close companions, despite lines in the Iliad such as ‘he whom I valued more than all others and loved as dearly as my own life.’ Miller has stated in interviews that she felt the romantic interpretation of their relationship had become less popular among academics at the time of her writing. Though Homer never described any sexual acts between the two characters, Miller includes multiple sex scenes and explores Patroclus’ fear of what others will think.

In Miller’s book, Patroclus describes how love between boys was common, whereas love between two equal men would be seen as strange. The Ancient Greeks saw sex in terms of power. A man of status or age would be the ‘lover’ while his young and passive partner would be the ‘beloved’. So whether the sex was heterosexual or homosexual, one person was seen as having power over the other. The Greek philosopher Plutarch actually saw the love of boys as superior to the love between men and women. He believed that sex with women was all about desire and wallowing. In contrast, boys offered genuine friendship, simplicity, and manliness. Any reading of the Greek classics will show you how well-respected the women were…

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A Thousand Ships

Speaking of which, Natalie Hayne’s book, A Thousand Ships, provides an unapologetically feminist retelling of the Trojan War. She explores the perspectives of the female characters, from goddesses to warriors. In contrast to The Song of Achilles, Patroclus and Achilles are portrayed simply as close friends. Moreover, the characters treat women poorly. Their abuse of women in Haynes’ work is probably more accurate to the original story. In the Iliad, there are elusions to the men lying with the women that they have captured during the war.

Although Homer’s Briseis describes Patroclus as ‘gentle’, he has most likely taken advantage of the dire situation of other women. In A Thousand Ships, Briseis herself is a victim of Patroclus. Haynes writes that Patroclus rapes Briseis, ‘even though the memory of her husband was still so raw that she could sense his presence.

Interestingly, in Miller’s version of events, Briseis is the one that pursues Patroclus. He rejects her due to his commitment to Achilles. Of course, Miller could not include certain aspects of Patroclus’ original character. It would be hard for modern-day readers to root for a protagonist that violates women. Instead, she writes of Patroclus’ sympathy towards many women in the book. He is uncomfortable with the women’s downcast eyes and ‘dull’ expressions as they are pursued by the men around them.

Authorial Intent

In this sense, Miller creates a version of Patroclus that a modern reader would like to imagine existed in the ancient world. At times he acts as Achilles’ conscience, a counter-balance to his hubris. He is able to love Achilles wholeheartedly. He adores Briseis as a dear friend and tries to protect women. Haynes herself alludes to this possible version of Patroclus. Haynes’ Briseis laments that Patroclus would have been a good man ‘in other circumstances’.

However, Haynes intends to show the overlooked suffering of women in ancient mythology. In her version, Patroclus cannot be kind nor romantic. I believe this is why she does not offer any hint of her opinion on a romantic connection between Achilles and Patroclus. It does not matter to her work as she only tells the story through the experiences of female characters. Her version of events leaves little room for joy or romance.

Both of these modern retellings renew ancient stories. Miller’s characterisation of Patroclus and the portrayal of romance offer some happiness in a cruel world (though this is torn away by the tragic ending). On the other hand, Haynes shows little remorse in her handling of the story. She wants you to know that the women in mythology are abused and overlooked. The great thing about these books is that they present ancient myths to a new audience.

The Song of Achilles is perfect for lovers of romance and heartbreak. A Thousand Ships expands upon the lesser-known experiences of women and does not shy away from the ordeals they face. I’m sure that modern authors will continue to draw upon ancient stories as a source of drama and adventure. One can only guess what the next popular book from this genre will tackle and what new perspective it will give.

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