Queer representation in literature: The Song of Achilles

Neve Watson explores whether it is possible for straight people to write from a queer perspective.

Neve Watson
17th February 2021
Miller’s 2011 novel The Song of Achilles depicts the Trojan War through the eyes of Patroclus, a character with an arguably minor role in The Iliad. Following the life of Achilles and Patroclus through childhood into the last year of the Trojan War, the book allows an insight into Patroclus’ character that was less explored in Homer’s epic. As it is recounted through his eyes, the novel touchingly explores a personal past between the two that is only mentioned in passing during Homer’s work. Miller brilliantly utilises the characters from The Iliad, and through the emphasis on legacies and the power of memory in Ancient Greece, humanises these characters further from the tragic heroes we know them to be.

Achilles and Patroclus are assigned very stereotypical tropes in their relationship, despite the hope of this being an accurately representative text. Achilles is a brave and fierce warrior - although beautifully vulnerable in private - and Patroclus is the gentle pacifist that acts as his calming force. Surely gay couples taking on stereotypical masculine and feminine roles have been over-used throughout literature? Is the trope of Achilles’ brazen personality coupled with Patroclus’ soft exterior a false, overused fetishization of a gay relationship?

Surely gay couples taking on stereotypical masculine and feminine roles have been over-used throughout literature?

Whilst Miller has received praise for her inclusion of an openly gay relationship, her approach to their sexual encounters has been criticised. Nobody can deny the positivity that comes along with queer representation in literature, (and arguably, this works extremely well with two infamous historic heroes), but questions have been raised around the necessity of sex scenes, particularly, the explicitness of them.

Miller has received criticism from LGBTQ+ readers regarding the inclusion and explicitness of sex scenes. Achilles and Patroclus’ first sex scene encounters on Achilles’ sixteenth birthday, and despite being the age of consent, (I am unsure whether Patroclus is fifteen here) they are both minors, given that they are under eighteen. Although you could argue that as it’s their first time there should be more emphasis, this does not change the fact that this is an explicit scene between two teenage boys.

Some have questioned the necessity of the sex scene: the others throughout the book are alluded to and nowhere near as explicit, so why not remove it completely? I argue that by removing this sex scene, there is no change to the plot itself: it still follows the life and love of Achilles and Patroclus, from their first days at Phthia to their final days at Troy.

The language in this scene is also arguably out of place. Achilles is said to ‘swell’ and ‘spurt’, language that a teenage Patroclus would probably not use. As the novel is told through Patroclus’ perspective, and is therefore in first person, the sex scenes in the book create a voyeuristic relationship between reader and character. Miller’s concern with poetic language and ensuring this is a beautiful book overshadow the intimacy between the two characters and displaces the fact that the two are still boys. Although her choice of words is beautiful throughout the book (I frequently think of the quote ‘he is half my soul, as the poets say,’) they overshadow the significance of the characters’ age in the novel.

There is an issue with straight people and their obsession with queer relationships in the media - this is not exclusive to The Song of Achilles but is seen widely throughout different forms of media: Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes in the Captain America franchise, for example. The state of these characters’ sexuality is not the issue, (I know personally that I think there is more than sufficient evidence throughout the films to reach this conclusion), but instead, who is obsessed with these relationships.

As a member of the community myself, I welcome healthy and accurate representation, and I acknowledge that my comment on gay male relationships is limited due to my gender, but from what I’ve seen personally on social media, the majority of fans who are obsessed with gay male relationships are straight women. And therefore, I ask: why are straight women so obsessed with gay relationships?

There is also the question of this book’s audience. It’s disappointing that Achilles and Patroclus seem to have no inward thought of their sexuality. Although you could argue that in the time of sexual fluidity in Ancient Greece, there would be less of a need to think of these matters, it would still be appreciated if a queer novel aimed at 21st Century readers included some inward contemplation on sexuality and society. Instead, Patroclus’ thoughts often contemplate Achilles’ appearance and his longing for him - offering no real insight into the idea of sexuality, despite the book being told through a first-person narrative. How does Miller’s novel about a coming-of-age queer relationship spare limited thought for their own identities in society?

Whilst I accept positive representation, it is important to consider how far, if it all, this book benefits the community. Should this book be recommended with a trigger warning for underage sex and queer fetishisation? The Song of Achilles is a beautifully written book about love and loss in Ancient Greece that I will always go back to, but it seems as though Miller has fallen victim to creating a queer relationship aimed at a heterosexual audience.

Featured Image: Gavin Hamilton- Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus

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