In Book nine of the Iliad, as his fellow Greek commanders are pleading with him to take up arms to stop a Trojan rout, Achilles explains a prophecy divulged to him by his mother, the sea goddess Thetis. If he sails away from Troy, dooming the Greeks to defeat, he will live a long but anonymous life. If, however, he again takes up arms against the Trojans—death will be almost certain—"my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies."
At that point Achilles is weighing the options, but ultimately he joins the fight. The oracles spoke true: He is killed outside of Troy's walls, but even today his name is known to schoolchildren. Prophecies, though, are never straightforward, and even promised glory can be ambiguous. It was entirely possible, even likely, that the Greek champion might have gone down in history as a purely infamous figure, his legend a byword for overweening pride and senseless slaughter. In the Iliad he is almost wholly unlikable—petulant, vainglorious, hysterical in his defeats and vindictive in his triumphs. And to contemporary readers sick of war, Achilles' martial prowess wouldn't seem to work in his favor.
How surprising, then, that most recent adaptations of Homer's epic have labored to make Achilles sympathetic. Elizabeth Cook's terse and evocative 2002 novel, "Achilles," traverses the short arc of his life and then concludes with a startling chapter showing Keats reading Chapman's Iliad, thereby connecting the pair as men of genius tragically cut down in their primes. David Malouf's dreamlike 2010 novel, "Ransom," casts Achilles as a tortured philosopher brooding over the corpse of his slain enemy Hector.
Then again, such revisions are perhaps not so surprising after all. Since the ancient Greeks, writers have tried not only to tap Homer's epics for their volcanic power but also to conform them to the morals or aesthetics familiar to their age. So Homer is at the root of cultural bellwethers such as "War and Peace" ("It is like the Iliad," Tolstoy declared) and Joyce's "Ulysses." Nikos Kazantzakis's "The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel" (1938) re-imagines Odysseus as a Byronic wanderer seeking spiritual enlightenment. Allesandro Baricco's "An Iliad" (2006) excises all mention of gods, which the author considers "extraneous to a modern sensibility." Zachary Mason's kaleidoscopic "The Lost Books of the Odyssey" (2010) makes gleeful use of the postmodernist armature of tongue-in-cheek footnotes and faked classical sources.
Now comes Madeline Miller's "The Song of Achilles," which frames the Iliad as, of all things, a love story. It is one of the best novelistic adaptations of Homer in recent memory, and it offers a strikingly well-rounded and compassionate portrait of Achilles.
To get at the hero's human side, Ms. Miller tells the story through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles' boon companion and, in "The Song of Achilles," his lover. Patroclus is born a prince, but at age 10 he accidentally kills another boy over a dice game. In punishment he is exiled to Phthia, where King Peleus, Achilles' father, is the ruler. The young prince Achilles is being prepared for his role as a great hero and, if his goddess mother can pull enough strings, perhaps as a god.
Ms. Miller is splendidly patient in dramatizing the boys' youthful companionship in Phthia and the first bloom of their love as teenagers in the mountains of Pelion, where they are studying with the centaur Chiron. Their irenic adolescence takes up half the novel and is enriched by the author's graceful poetic descriptions, which draw perceptively upon the natural world: The boys' friendship comes rapidly, "like spring floods from the mountains"; the feel of lips in a tentative kiss is "like the fat bodies of bees, soft and round and giddy with pollen."
Combining classical interpretations that imagined an erotic bond between the pair with the modern ideal of a committed relationship, Ms. Miller makes Achilles and Patroclus a devoted couple. By centralizing their almost domestic relationship and focusing on the bonds of love and fidelity, the novel loses the epic's miraculous abundance (and does not even attempt to match its searing violence), but "The Song of Achilles" memorably clarifies a reason for Achilles' continued allure. He is, as Ms. Miller writes, "a man grown, and god born"; his tragedy is to be divided between his human cares and limitations and the heedless power of his divinity.
Patroclus becomes acutely aware of the division when Achilles at last joins the Greek forces at Troy and, at the age of 17, is hailed as "Aristos Achaion," the Best of the Greeks: "He was enjoying it," Ms. Miller writes, "licking the crowd's worship off his lips."
To them he is, in Odysseus' words, "a weapon, a killer," and an extraordinary one. But to Patroclus, Achilles is a person, not a legend. Thus the war's famous length takes on a new meaning: Because an additional prophecy states that Achilles will not die until Hector is killed, Achilles avoids confronting the Trojan hero for 10 years, temporarily damming the "rushing torrent of his doom" out of love for Patroclus. But when Achilles, infuriated by an insult to his honor from the Greek commander Agamemnon, refuses to join the fight against the Trojans, the hero triggers his own downfall and Patroclus'. Patroclus is horrified by the slaughter of his Greek friends and allies, dons Achilles' armor and is killed in the field. Achilles, delirious with sorrow and vengeance, plunges into battle—and takes the fateful step of slaying Hector.
Among the virtues of Ms. Miller's bold revisions is that she injects a newfound sense of suspense into a story with an ending that has already been determined. She redefines Achilles' heroic ambition in his struggle to reconcile greatness with happiness.
And perhaps heroism is the elemental quantity in Homer that most attracts writers. He provided every storyteller after him with two basic templates—someone goes away to fight and someone returns home—and within that framework the terms of hubris and tragedy, of courage and redemption, can be continually updated.