Thalia Sutton is an independent scholar and writer of fiction. She holds a Master’s in East Asian Studies from Columbia University in the City of New York, and is delighted every time a form has a box allocated in which to check “Master” as her legal title.
Welcome to the sixth installment of the Greek Myth in A Game of Thrones series. (Caution! Spoilers through book 3! Turn back now if you have not yet done your reading for Season 3!)
If Odysseus makes an appearance in A Song of Ice and Fire, then it stands to reason that not all the characters are based on gods. In fact, that’s exactly where our next argument leads: to Loras and Renly as the legendary Achilles and Patroclus. Like everything in ASoIaF, they’re not straight adaptations; they are, to use Martin’s own word, “answers” to the originals. They are reflections upon the original source, amalgamated with other ideas, and then spit back out as something new. But the comparisons are among the most striking in the ASoIaF canon.
Achilles and Patroclus are a pair of — one assumes when reading between the lines — gay lovers made famous by the Trojan War. Achilles — half-god, shining figure, best in the Greek armies — is known and prized by all. He’s the youngest of the princes and kings that go to war to conquer Troy, and time and again, he’s the voice of reason when the other heads of state squabble. He’s been sheltered from battle his whole life, even though the tales tell him as the best — as do any eyes that have seen him fight; he’s from the tiny, rocky settlement of Phthia, a faraway and peaceful place that collected its army merely from adopting disenfranchised wealthy sons from across the Greek city-states.
These things are reminiscent of Renly. He’s the youngest of the Baratheon brothers, and the one who has popular support; people love him as if by magic (and it doesn’t hinder him that he’s good-looking, much like Achilles). His name well precedes him wherever he goes, and his army, once he calls it, is an amalgamated one that is assembled and held together not just by his tact, but also by the myth of his personage, and the glory it could bring by association. Storm’s End, the Baratheon homeland, isn’t peaceful necessarily, but it’s a rocky, angry place by the sea (reminiscent of Achilles’s mother, Thetis), tiny and far removed, and little-suspected of rebellion (though, like Phthia, it is the site of it time and again).
Achilles is a great leader, but before he goes to war, he’s oddly unambitious. He is the epitome of an unchallenged mind living in peaceful privilege, which is a dead-ringer for Renly living the good life in the rule of King Robert. Even Renly’s addition to the Small Council is Achilles-esque: he has keen insight when everyone else squabbles, and he’s not afraid to speak it; what makes everyone resentful is that he’s always right, and seems to live a life of such ease on top of it.
Achilles isn’t keen to die in someone else’s war (Agamemnon’s war with Troy), and Renly has to be coerced into his own rebellion, though admittedly this is shown more obviously in the television adaptation. Achilles is most famous in common knowledge, however, because he was faced with a choice: Die young, and be remembered forever; die old, and do not be remembered at all. To the Greeks, not being remembered in further generations — garnering no glory — was pretty much the worst fate possible. Achilles, however, perhaps knowing the value of peace, dragged his heels and even ran away (in some interpretations) to a godforsaken island to avoid Agamemnon’s call of duty, reminiscent of Renly’s flight of King’s Landing. In the end, he only gives in because of the fact that Patroclus is oath-bound to go, even though he knows it will kill him in the end — and sooner rather than later. He hopes to protect Patroclus. It doesn’t work that way.
Patroclus is the understated and kindhearted “healer character” of the Iliad. He comes to Phthia after the irony of unintentionally killing someone important. Soon, he is befriended by Achilles, even though he is a terrible fighter and mild of looks. And yet, he becomes the force behind Achilles’ conscience and actions. He is the reason Achilles goes to war. To use Achilles’ influence to save Briseis and other female war trophies from sexual bondage is his idea. To save the Greeks from themselves — when Achilles would let them burn — is his idea; and yet, Achilles, the fighter, racks up all the glory.
It is Loras’s idea for Renly to go to war. It is Loras who came to Renly’s court as someone on the outside, and who is with him for most of his life. With Loras being a third son, and his romantic preferences being no secret, no one knows what exactly to do with his future, least of all himself, yet being sent away to Renly’s is the best thing that could have happened to him. Since they met (one assumes), he is guided always is his affection for Renly, and vice-versa.
But wait, you say, that only partially describes Loras Tyrell as Patroclus. And that’s exactly right: the brilliance that Martin pulls off here is in switching the power structure of the two while maintaining the relationship dynamics. The beautiful, shining one — known as one of, if not the best fighter in the land, and who becomes ever more full of himself for it, to the point of everything around him burning and eventually losing his lover — is the one of lesser status, Loras. Meanwhile, the gentler one is the charismatic leader, Renly.
The fact that this works is what makes it such a strikingly resonant arc of the series, in my opinion: it’s more balanced than the power structures of Achilles and Patroclus. The characters have more agency this way, and so are more compelling when they fail. Loras surviving his lover in a directionless, lightless existence of empty routine, propped up only by battles, also quite fits an Achilles-style influence, despite his “Patroclus status” in society: Achilles went on to defeat numerous legendary figures after Patroclus’s death, but each was without victory, because his heart was gone from it. Similarly, Loras’s extreme, ridiculously overzealous grief upon hearing of Renly’s death at first seems a bit of fantasy novel nonsense; but it recalls Achilles’s madness at Patroclus’s untimely demise because of his own stubbornness. The one time Achilles isn’t there to protect him, the one time he takes his safety for granted, then he is gone — just as Loras continues to tell himself about Renly, over and over.
Now, I will admit, Loras and Renly’s storyline and relationship, especially when Margaery is included, also bears striking resemblance to Galahad and Arthur, but that is possibly because both are based on the same source.
The reception of their relationship is also important. At different times, and in different places, throughout ancient Greek history, homosexuality was as suspect as it is in modern times — and as it is in Thrones. For young men who lived in homosocial cultures in Achilles’ time, it was considered fairly normative to have homosexual romances; however, upon adulthood, it was illicit, a perversion. Yet in the Iliad, everyone knows of Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship, but, because the two don’t flaunt it, and because of Achilles’s battle prowess, no one challenges it openly.
To be continued in part 7!
This Series comes in 8 parts:
6. Loras and Renly as Achilles and Patroclus (Spoilers through book 2)
7. Brienne and Margaery as Briseis and Helen of Troy (Spoilers through book 3)
8. Stannis and Renly as Apollo and Dionysus; Stannis’s Crew as Daedalus, Icarus, and Cassandra (Spoilers through book 2)