Madeline Miller is the author of the 2012 Orange Prize willing novel, The Song of Achilles, a vivid retelling of the Trojan War of Greek mythology. Her short story “Galatea” was featured in a 2013 anthology of reimagined myths called xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths and her next novel, Circe, is expected to be released in early 2018. (And I, for one, am absurdly excited.)
Q. Why take the time to retell a story that already exists? And why was it the story of the Trojan War you chose?
A. It is in many ways a very hubristic thing to do, to take one of the greats of the last 3000 years of literature and think that you can tell your version of it. I think I was inspired and given permission to do that by two things.
One is that the act of retelling is almost as old as The Iliad itself. These stories were retold and retold in so many different ways in Greek culture, Roman culture, and then onward from there, all across the world. You can talk about Aeschylus and the tragedians doing their versions of these myths all the way up through Margret Atwood. So these are myths that have been told many times and I think that they have lived because of that retelling. They’ve been done in high culture, but they’ve also been done in all kinds of media. They’ve been done in comic books. They’ve been done is silly parodies. They’ve been done in every possible iteration. So I felt that there’s always room for more and my purpose, aside from telling a good story, was to share these myths because I have such a passion for them. I hoped that this would be another way of putting them out in the world again.
The other thing that inspired me is my background in theater. As a director I specialize in Shakespeare plays. When you do a Shakespeare play, maybe half the audience has never seen the play before, but usually at least half and sometimes more than that know the play well—sometimes quite well. When you direct Hamlet, you’re really not thinking “Oh, do we really need another Hamlet?” As a director you get used to the idea of working in a tradition. There are this year in America probably 10,000 Hamlets, from the middle school versions all the way to very fancy, professional theaters, so why not me too?
Q. Why do you think there’s still a market for all these stories that are being told again and again? Do you think it’s just so ingrained in our culture that we don’t know what to do without them or is there something else driving that?
A. I think that the ancient stories that survived [did so] because they keep speaking to us. These poets who were creating these works, they clearly understood human nature. One of the things I love as a teacher is to have my students read a piece from the classical world that they have never seen before, and see them realize how much it still resonates. Of course there are also things that are foreign. There’s the sacrifice. There’s the way the ancients went to war that is very different from the modern way we go to war, but we all go to war. So I think that the ancients nailed it. They held up a psychological mirror and I think we just keep seeing ourselves in it.
Q. What difficulties are presented in retelling a well-known story? Did you expect the readers to bring their own preconceived ideas of the characters to the story? How did this complicate the writing of these characters?
A. I wanted this to be a book where you didn’t have to know anything about the mythology, but if you did know the mythology there would be goodies throughout. Unfortunately, in modern times a lot of people view the classics as a little bit crusty or elitist and I didn’t want anyone to feel shut out. I didn’t want anyone to pick up this book and think “Oh my gosh, that’s the tenth name I can’t pronounce. I don’t know any of this backstory. I’m not welcome.” These ancient poems were meant to be shared with everyone. They were stories that were retold and retold. They weren’t just for the highest echelons of society. They were the type of stories that were passed down from grandparents to grandchildren. They were meant for everyone and I wanted to honor that in the way I wrote the book so that it could be for both audiences: audiences who knew the myths and audiences who were new to the myths.
Q. Most modern interpretations of the Trojan War shy away from Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship. Rather than lovers, they have been portrayed as close friends or as cousins as in the 2004 film adaptation, Troy, directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Why did you choose to embrace the traditional relationship and how did you do so without alienating potential readers? Were you at all apprehensive about how to approach this relationship?
A. Well, no. If they didn’t like it, that was their problem. I know that sounds a bit rude, but that’s the truth. This [take] is both contested and attested. There are so many versions in the ancient world where it was assumed that Achilles and Patroclus were together. That was not a controversial stance in the ancient world. Plato mentions it. We have a fragment of Aeschylus that mention it. Even Shakespeare alludes to it. It was a totally established tradition. Also established is the idea of best friends—closest friends, but not lovers.
When I was about to publish the book, my wonderful editor did warn me that I might get some nasty emails from people about Achilles and Patroclus being together. The lovely thing is that I have actually received very few. There definitely have been a handful of people who didn’t like it, but I think that those are people who maybe don’t know as much about the classical world. The people who do know the classical world know that, as I said, this is a legitimate interpretation given the literary history, but also that same sex male relationships were accepted in the ancient world. It’s clearly coming from their own discomfort and their own issues.
I felt really strongly about the interpretation because in my reading of the Iliad I felt that Achilles’ reaction to losing Patroclus is like the reaction of losing a spouse. There is a physicality to it with him holding Patroclus’ body all night long. The level of grief—that physical grief—just kept coming back to me and I felt that this was very intimate in a way that reached beyond friendship.
I also felt that there is a history of all these same sex relationship—including this interpretation of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers—being totally obscured and hidden in classical scholarship. I think that’s changing and I think that has changed now in modern times, but I felt very strongly about having that be one of the stories that was out there.
Q. With all that in mind, do you take issue with the portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship in the 2004 film version, Troy, where they are portrayed as cousins? Or was that an acceptable choice for the filmmakers to make?
A. I have so many complicated feelings about this. As a teacher I can tell you that that movie has brought so many people to these myths. So many of my students come to class with only Troy under their belt. That’s all they know, but they think it’s totally cool because they loved the movie. So I have a lot of gratitude toward the movie.
I think the more these stories get told, the better. I love to see them in any form, even if I have frustrations or wishes. I think that’s inevitable when you love these stories so much. So I want to start with saying that I think it brought a lot of people to classics and I also believe that these stories should be open to everyone.
But I did have a frustration with it, which was that I feel that focusing on the familial relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, as opposed to the friendship or romantic relationship was a little bit of a cop out. I would have loved it if they had explored the romance between Achilles and Patroclus, but I also would have been equally fine with a deep male friendship. I think that American culture is a little bit afraid of male friendships and a little bit afraid of portraying them. I’m not a specialist on that—this is my armchair analysis—but I feel that I see people afraid to show men grieving for men. I would have been happy if it had been a relationship of intense friendship, but by going with family it felt like they were afraid of touching something.