*This article contains spoilers for The Song of Achilles, Circe, and Galatea.
Here is the post you didn’t know you were waiting for: Madeline Miller Characters as Taylor Swift songs! For an extra challenge, I only used songs from Swift’s most recent album, Folklore.
the 1 – Penelope
Excerpt of lyrics: “We never painted by the numbers, baby / But we were making it count / You know the greatest loves of all time are over now / I guess you never know, never know / And it’s another day of waking up alone”
Why it works: Penelope has incredible strength, and she has to endure living so much of her life without Odysseus because he’s away at war and on other quests. When he finally does come back, he’s changed completely. Additionally, once he’s back, only a short time passes before he dies. I imagine her nostalgically thinking about the beginning of their marriage in the song. “We were something, don’t you think so?” She asks. Then, she laments how much of her life she’s had to spend by herself. “It’s another day of waking up alone.”
I’d like to think that the death of Odysseus doesn’t destroy her, though, which is why I chose a slightly more upbeat song like the 1. Penelope honors Odysseus and mourns the time they lost together, but she’s also living in the present. I like that Madeline Miller makes her a very active character and gives her characteristics other than worrying about Odysseus. Penelope is an amazing character in her own right (I would say personally much better than Odysseus), and maybe someday she found another “the 1” who didn’t let her down horribly, or she became “the 1” for herself instead.
the last great american dynasty – Circe
Excerpt of lyrics: And they said / “There goes the last great American dynasty / Who knows, if she never showed up / what could’ve been / There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything”
Why it works: I struggled to find a song worthy of my beloved Circe, but I ended up choosing the last great american dynasty because of the way that the narration of the song is set up. The song is about this woman who is living life on her own terms, and people are talking about how bad she is, scoffing that she doesn’t fit in and that she ruins everything. I imagine that’s how the gods talk about Circe. Circe is sick of living around the gods and discovers that she doesn’t have to be cowed by them, and that she has the power to live the life that she wants. The song is also closely tied to the image of a house, just as Circe is very tied to the image of being exiled on her island, so there are definite parallels there, as well.
my tears ricochet – Patroclus
Excerpt of lyrics: I swear I loved you / ‘Til my dying day / I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace / And you’re the hero flying around, saving face / And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?
Why it works: I wish that there were happier songs on this album that I could give to Patroclus and Achilles! My tears ricochet is weirdly fitting for Patroclus, though, especially considering his relationship to Achilles. This song describes a time for Patroclus when he’s died and become a spirit, unable to move on. He knows that Achilles can’t sleep without him. He’s desperately praying for Achilles to do the right thing and bury Hector. “You know I didn’t want to have to haunt you but what a ghostly scene.”
He also has a little bit of anger for how Achilles has handled the war. He tells Achilles that he had to die the way that he did in order to save the Greeks, even if it meant that he died after being defeated in battle, stuck as a spirit with unfinished business. He’s asking Achilles to right the wrongs that have happened in the war.
I will note that the biggest difference between the song and Patroclus are the endings. At the end of the song, the relationship that Taylor Swift is describing is very much over, and at the end of the book, Achilles and Patroclus are very much together, united and happy in the afterlife.
seven – Paphos
Excerpt of lyrics: Please picture me in the weeds / Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / Any time I wanted
Why it works: I connect Paphos with this song because of its innocence. The narrator says that she hit her peak at age 7, and I think that this is when Paphos was the happiest, considering that her father forcibly removes her from her mother not too many years after that point. Paphos really does “hit [her] peak at seven,” in the sense that she gets to be with her mom, and her mom is fighting her dad to give her a full life. Throughout the song, she’s speaking to an unnamed friend who is also a child, and they’re reflecting on the years that they were happy together just playing in the weeds.
august – Deidameia
Excerpt of lyrics: But I can see us lost in the memory / August slipped away into a moment in time / ‘Cause it was never mine / And I can see us twisted in bedsheets / August slipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine
Why it works: I think this one is pretty straightforward. The song is about a girl lamenting for a lost love that she realizes she never actually had any claim to in the first place. This is precisely what happens with Deidameia and Achilles. He never really loved her, and belonged only to Patroclus. Even though she was married to Achilles, she still managed to be the “other woman,” and their relationship “slipped away like a bottle of wine,” because Achilles returns to Patroclus.
Invisible string – Telemachus
Excerpt of lyrics: Time, curious time / Gave me no compasses, gave me no signs / Were there clues I didn’t see? / And isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / invisible string / tying you to me?
Why it works: I picked this song for Telemachus because I think that he and Circe really were fated to be together all along, and in a sense they were tied together by this invisible string that neither of them could see.The idea that out of all the people Circe could have ended up with, it’s Odysseus and Penelope’s son? Wow.
Also, the song questions the nature of time, which is fitting considering the timing of their relationship, as Telemachus and Penelope are seeking shelter with Circe after the death of Odysseus. There’s also the fact that Circe is an immortal, so it’s interesting that after all the thousands of years that she’s been alive, she finally finds her partner, even though she didn’t get any “compasses” or signs giving her warning.
mad woman – Galatea
Excerpt of lyrics: And there’s nothing like a mad woman / What a shame she went mad / No one like a mad woman / You made her like tha
Why it works: This song was meant for Galatea. Her husband insists she’s sick and that there’s something wrong with her, and he pays doctors and nurses to tell her the same thing. The song has a biting, teasing tone, which reminds me so much of Galatea’s dry sense of humor. The lyrics take shots at the men who use negative labels for women in order to control them, such as “mad woman.” What happens to a woman when her status as a sex object is threatened in a man’s eyes? When she speaks out for what she wants and dares to become a person with her own thoughts and opinions? She becomes a mad woman. This is exactly what happened between Galatea and Pygmalion.
epiphany – Chiron
Excerpt of lyrics: Keep your helmet, keep your life, son / Just a flesh wound, here’s your rifle / Crawling up the beaches now / “Sir, I think he’s bleeding out” / And some things you just can’t speak about
Why it works: This song fits Chiron because he’s seen so much death and suffering over the years. He’s mentored many heroes and soldiers and felt their pain. The song reflects that he tries to teach his students that no one can really be prepared for war or battle or sickness until it’s actually happening to them.
betty – Odysseus
Excerpt of lyrics: But if I just showed up at your party / Would you have me? Would you want me? / Would you tell me to go fuck myself / Or lead me to the garden? / In the garden, would you trust me / If I told you it was just a summer thing? / I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you
Why it works: James, the narrator of the song, shares a lot of characteristics with Odysseus. Mostly that James leads women on, just as Odysseus does. And sure, James and Odysseus might not be the worst people ever, but they’ve definitely caused some pain. While James pretends to be young and dumb to get out of the pain that he’s caused people, Odysseus has a different tactic, hiding behind his sharp intelligence. At the end of the day, though, they’re lying to themselves about the hurt they’ve caused. When James hurts Betty by cheating on her and then tries to bring up another man, it parallels when Odysseus jealously kills anyone interested in Penelope. As if Odysseus hadn’t been unfaithful more than a few times on his journeys, and as if Penelope would ever have been unfaithful to him. Plus, even if James and Odysseus are charming, they are still both snakes. There, I said it. Odysseus is a snake, even if he’s a heroic snake at times.
peace – Achilles
Excerpt of lyrics: But there’s robbers to the east / clowns to the west / I’d give you my sunshine, give you my best / But the rain is always gonna come in you’re / standin’ with me
Why it works: Again, I wish I had happier songs to give to my favs. Peace just perfectly describes Achilles inner monologuing to Patroclus about his feelings. The song brings up the question of if Patroclus loves Achilles enough to stand with him, because Achilles chooses to have this crazy life rather than die in obscurity. “Your integrity makes me feel small,” Achilles thinks, because Patroclus is such a good person.
Achilles can do anything for Patroclus except give him a peaceful life. He’s being honest about why he’s not such a good person. Patroclus has to weather a lot of rain in his choice to stand with Achilles, and he wants Patroclus to know that, but also know that he loves him.
the lakes – Briseis
Excerpt of lyrics: Take me to the Lakes where all the poets went to die / I don’t belong, and my beloved, neither do you / Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry / I’m setting off, but not without my muse
Why it works: This song fits Briseis in a lot of ways. It expresses her desire to run away, and to run away with a lover, even though it’s not clear if this lover returns her feelings. She’s speaking to Patroclus, and telling him that he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the people fighting the war, either. The song talks about “calamitous love” and “insurmountable grief” which is what Briseis gains from the war. The whole song seems kind of like a far off dream, which is appropriate for Briseis’ state of mind. Briseis doesn’t have any power after she’s taken by the Greeks, as she is forced into servitude, and I’m sure she imagined running away many times.