Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe, tells the story of a secondary character from Homer’s Odyssey, the classic Greek epic. After being exiled by her father for transforming a nymph into a sea monster out of jealousy, Circe hones her witchcraft on an isolated island. But chance encounters lead her to reconsider her past and seize control of her fate.
We asked Miller, who won the Orange Prize in 2012 for her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a few questions about the power of myth and the allure of immortality.
Your novels are tricky to pin down by genre. They take place in the past, but have elements of the supernatural. How do you think about your own work?
I think of my books as either literary adaptation or mythological realism. Or just plain old fiction! Genre is such a permeable and changeable thing—Homer is considered some of the most literary literature there is, but if the Odyssey came out today it would probably get shelved in fantasy.
Other than the Odyssey, what sources did you have for information about the legends surrounding Circe? Why did you choose to tell her story?
Circe has always been fascinating to me because of her power and mystery; we know she turns men to pigs, but why? To say that it’s because she’s evil by nature isn’t interesting—nor is it true. After she and Odysseus become lovers, she’s one of the most benevolent deities he meets, and I wanted to dig into the reasons behind all of that.
Circe’s also interesting because of the way she relates to so many other famous myths—she’s Helios’ daughter, the Minotaur and Medea’s aunt, Prometheus’ cousin and more. Finally, I loved that she’s the first witch in Western literature. She was born a goddess with little status or power, but finds a way to carve out an independent life for herself by literally inventing something new in the world. I wanted to tell the story of such an interesting and complex woman in her own words, rather than filtered through the male protagonist’s perspective.
In terms of sources, I used texts from all over the ancient world and a few from the more modern world as well. For Circe herself, I drew inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Vergil’s Aeneid, the lost epic Telegony (which survives only in summary) and myths of the Anatolian goddess Cybele. For other characters, I was inspired by the Iliad, of course, the tragedies (specifically the Oresteia, Medea and Philoctetes), Vergil’s Aeneid again, Tennyson’s Ulysses and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Alert readers may note a few small pieces of Shakespeare’s Ulysses in my Odysseus!
“I loved that she’s the first witch in Western literature. She was born a goddess with little status or power, but finds a way to carve out an independent life for herself by literally inventing something new in the world.”
Without giving too much away, Circe’s encounter with Odysseus pokes some holes in the heroic identity that he is given by Homer. Can you talk a little about what it was like to present Odysseus from a different perspective?
Odysseus was one of my favorite characters to write in The Song of Achilles, so I was excited for the chance to revisit him from a different character’s perspective, and at such a different stage of his life. Odysseus is one of the most storied heroes out there—he has been rewritten and reimagined thousands of times. He’s been pretty much everything: beloved trickster, scheming puppet-master, treacherous supervillain, pompous gasbag, wise philosopher among savages, petty bureaucrat, master artist, victim of the fates, courageous leader, cunning thug and on and on. So poking holes in his heroism is definitely a time-honored tradition, even in the ancient world! When we speak of heroes today, we use the term to mean people who have moral courage and integrity. The ancient world didn’t use the word the same way. Their heroes were bold and larger than life—with equally larger-than-life flaws (see Achilles, Agamemnon, etc.).
In the Odyssey, Odysseus beats his men when they argue with him, his greed often gets him in trouble, and it is his own boastfulness that brings the Cyclops’ wrath down on his head. In the Iliad, he ruthlessly kills enemy soldiers in their sleep, as well as a spy to whom he’s promised mercy. I think we’ve come to love Odysseus because he’s the “smart” one, because he’s suffered so much and because he deeply loves his wife and family. That’s all true to the myths, but so is the fact that he’s a violent, compulsive liar who’s cheated on his faithful wife at least twice. I was interested in how both of those perspectives might be true at once.
As for my own Odysseus, I have always seen pragmatism as one of his core traits. He believes that the world is a brutal and dishonorable place, and if you want to thrive you have to be willing to set aside the traditional ideas of honor and get your hands dirty. He’s definitely an ends-justify-the-means believer.
Despite the myriad goddesses in the pantheon, there’s a broad streak of misogyny that runs through classical mythology. What was life like for women in Greece at the time the Odyssey was being told?
This varied depending on location, time period and class, but the general answer is: not great. Women in the ancient Greek world were controlled by a man throughout their lives. As girls, they were under their father’s control, which then passed to their husband and finally to their son. Some of these fathers would of course have been more sympathetic to their daughters’ wishes than others, but even the most doting ones were still having the final say. A woman’s duty was clear: marry so as to provide her father with a good alliance, then produce good heirs for her husband.
Women in ancient Greece were often considered to be creatures of a lower order—bestial in their lust and appetites and untrustworthy, as opposed to intellectual and enlightened men. They were usually not taught to read or write. An exception to this were the hetairai—high-class prostitutes/escorts that have some similarities to geishas. These women were able to attend the fancy, all-male intellectual dinner parties called symposia. They were expected to be learned and artistic, able to discourse wittily on poetry and myth and display other artistic talents. But they were of course also sex workers with little social status, who would never have been allowed to marry one of the men they escorted.
Circe leads an isolated life but still manages to cross paths with some of mythology’s best known characters, like Hermes, Athena, Daedalus, Prometheus, Medea and the Minotaur. Was there a personality you were particularly eager to bring to life?
So many of these characters were fun to imagine, it is hard to pick just one! I loved writing Pasiphae, Circe’s sister. She’s outrageous and vicious—but she has reasons for her behavior. Daedalus, the master craftsman and artist, was another favorite. And perhaps most of all: Penelope, Odysseus’ loyal wife who is as brilliant as he, if not more so.
The Greek gods are immortal, but few use their eternal life spans to seek wisdom, choosing instead to be ruled by their passions and pursue pleasure. It’s almost like a state of eternal adolescence. Do you think mortality inspires us in some ways to become better people? Why or why not?
I think mortality and pain can inspire us to be better—our own struggles can teach us great empathy and give us the push to help others. But I think it can also go the other way—that people who have suffered want to make others suffer. Humanity is always double-edged, and it is all of our responsibilities to encourage our better natures.
Also, as a teacher of high school students, I’m going to defend adolescents! I would take a teenager running things over a Greek god ANY day. Teenagers have big emotions, but those emotions are often positive ones—a passion for experience and learning, a desire for justice and improving the world, and a knack for sweeping away the old cobwebbed compromises and hypocrisies of the generation before. Setting aside a few exceptions (Prometheus, Chiron, etc.), Greek gods don’t feel empathy and only care about themselves. In my mind, they are more like narcissists.
Humankind has long been drawn to myths and legends. What do you think they teach us, or reveal about humanity, that other forms of narrative can’t?
I think there is something in the outsize nature of myth that speaks to us. The dragons and monsters, the angry gods all allow us to work through powerful emotions. None of us has actually met a dragon, but I think most of us have had moments of extreme hope, terror and adrenaline that feel larger than life and need some kind of epic expression. Imagining ourselves into myths provides an outlet for that. Myths let us be the valiant, suffering, flawed and clever heroes of our own lives.
If you could have one supernatural power, what would it be?
Circe’s power to communicate with animals would definitely be up there. Can I have Achilles’ superspeed as well?
What is a typical writing day like for you?
My writing schedule has changed since The Song of Achilles. Back then, I was also teaching and directing plays full time, so I tended to binge-write on weekends, vacations or in the summers—I would do total immersion for days or weeks at a time, then take long breaks. Now I have two young children, which means that I don’t have those nonstop binges, but I do write every day. I usually start around 8:30 a.m. or so, jumping right into a new scene. Then I work on older scenes, then back to the new scenes. Somewhere in there I work out, or at the very least take a long walk. Movement is vital to my writing—I work through lots of writing problems while I’m working out. It’s a great time for my brain to chew over solutions.
What are you working on next?
Two projects are drawing my eye. One is a piece inspired by Vergil’s Aeneid (one of my favorite pieces of literature of all time), and the other is inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest (Shakespeare is the other great intellectual love of my life). I have no idea which one is going to pull ahead first!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Circe.
Photo credit Nina Subin