The Mary Renault Society

The Triangle Area of North Carolina

Literary Re-Visions of Myth and History through a Gay Lens

This presentation will discuss the way a couple of contemporary authors have presented myth and history through a distinctly gay lens. It will consider how fleshing out myths and historical events with complex gay characters is not necessarily anachronistic, that it may be possible that queer relationships can be envisioned in those historical contexts as long as authors and readers do not overlay a whole set of contemporary understandings onto the textual relationships. The literary re-visions can give us a glimpse into other times, and help us comprehend the universality of love and connection.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline MillerThe first of the two books, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, takes up the story of Achilles with a particular emphasis on his relationship with Patroclus (the narrator of this tale). In my gay and lesbian literature class at UNC, this is one of the most enjoyable novels I teach. What is so delightful about teaching Song of Achilles is that readers are familiar (more or less) with the story of Achilles and know that Patroclus is a part of that story. But, as the novel unfolds with the lens focused on those two characters, a beautiful love story develops. It is perhaps jarring, or at least surprising, for a reader who expects the story to unfold with a focus on Achilles’ heroism and war feats. Miller, a classics scholar, has kept faithful to the traditional tale, detailing the complexities of The Iliad, with its multitude of gods, heroes, kingdoms frequently in conflict with each other, and peace always on the edge of disruption. At the same time, she has fleshed out these characters in great depth, allowing us to see into their conflicting drives and motivations, the richness of their relationships, in particular the unwavering love of Achilles and Patroclus for each other.

At Swim Two Boys by Jamie ONeillA less well-known topic is Irish history and the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Jamie O’Neill, an Irish writer who spent 10 years researching and writing his novel At Swim, Two Boys, offers a glimpse into a complicated moment in Irish history. The historically accurate backdrop includes characters from real life who were instrumental in staging the uprising. Against that backdrop, O’Neill creates an engaging set of characters who run the gamut on class and political affiliations. A compelling love relationship develops between two of the three central characters, with the support of the third central character. Making references to Oscar Wilde’s trials and the climate for “sodomites” in 1916 Ireland, O’Neill realistically explores the challenges for young gay men to find their identity and each other.


Dr. Wendy WeberWendy Weber has been teaching at UNC for 14 years. She teaches first-year writing and gay and lesbian literature to undergraduates. In addition to teaching, she and her partner homeschool their two children and she helps in her partner’s shop, KatieBeth’s Learning Garden.

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