“I wanted to push back against Homer,” Madeline Miller said, matter-of-factly, on the phone last week. That’s a bold statement, considering Homer and his two 4,000-year-old epic poems have been a fixture in culture and canon over the millennia.
But it's nothing new for Miller, a former high school classics teacher who has made a career out of mining these monolithic poems for exquisitely written, character-driven stories that are based in both ancient mythology and eternal human experience. Miller's not afraid to push back against Homer – and to reinvent his poems completely.
Miller's first novel, Song of Achilles, explored how the deep love between Achilles and Patroclus affected the course of the Trojan War. Her second, Circe, out 19th April, is narrated by the immortal witch most famous for turning Odysseus’ men into pigs in the Odyssey. After exhibiting her skills as a witch, the sly, brilliant, and devastatingly under-appreciated Circe is banished from her father's kingdom, where nymphs frolic and gods dine ad infinitum, to the island Aiaia. Alone, Circe is liberated from restrictions (gender norms exist among the gods, too) and can develop as both a witch and an individual.
While Circe is inspired by the Odyssey, this is no one's story but Circe's. In the book, “Circe alludes to the fact that she’s telling her version of the story. The male heroic version has been the loudest version, but it’s not objective truth," Miller said. I spoke to Miller about witches, solitude, and what makes Circe the most powerful character you've never heard of.
Refinery29: Before we start, I wanted to make sure I was pronouncing Circe’s name right.
The way it was pronounced in ancient Greek would’ve been 'KIR-kee'. But one of the things that I feel strongly about is using the version of the name that is most recognisable to my audience, so I say 'SUR-see'. I want people to feel like they can own these myths and not feel intimidated by the names and the pronunciation. I try to use the version of the name that people have most comfort with. If the name is totally unknown, then I go with the Greek version. But if it’s a known name, I try to do the one that won’t make people say, ‘Uh oh. I need to have a degree in classics to read this book.’
That connects back to what your books really are. They’re gateways into this world of myth, especially Homeric myth, that can be initially kind of intimidating.
Yes, they really can be. Especially because they’ve come to hold this place in our culture that feels very rarefied, and feels like you need to have all this background knowledge. It’s true that the ancients came to this as natives, and they knew all the backstory myths. But in the ancient world, these stories belonged to everyone. Part of what I wanted to do with these stories was allow people who maybe didn’t know the story, or were intimidated by it, to have a way in. You don’t need any background. I’ll tell you everything you need. But if you are a classicist, there are goodies in there for you.
You said after Song of Achilles you were interested in staying in the world of Homer. Of all the women in Homeric myth, and there are so many, why did you choose Circe to focus on?
It didn’t even feel like a choice, because it was so obviously Circe to me. She has been gripping to me for a very long time. There are a couple reasons why that’s true. I love the fact that she’s one of the very few women in mythology who’s allowed to live independently, to have power, to be frightening to the gods and to not be punished for it. Usually women with power in the ancient world end up brought low, particularly if they intimidate the gods or do something like turn a hero’s men into pigs. But Circe generally has a happier ending in mythology. I was interested in how she got away with that. And how challenging it was to carve out that independent life in a world that did not give women their independence or their power.
I was also interested in her complexity. What I’m discovering, as I’m starting to talk to people, is that Circe has a very bad reputation. A lot of people remember her as a straight-up villain. Of course, she’s turned Odysseus’ men into pigs and she would have turned Odysseus into a pig as well, were he not prepared with the magical antidote. But after she and Odysseus come to an understanding, she’s incredibly helpful to him. I was interested in how she could have those two sides. This very menacing, frightening side, and also this side that still is powerful because she’s the one who gives him all the advice about the monsters. She’s wise and powerful and helpful.
There are many women characters in the Odyssey, but they all exist to either help Odysseus along, or thwart his journey. In this book, you gave Circe a story that isn’t just confined to the Odyssey. Her life is bigger than one man’s life.
Yes. That’s exactly what I wanted to do. Circe is in two books of the Odyssey, and I wanted Odysseus to be two chapters in Circe. That’s what I held him to. He gets talked about in some other chapters, but he’s only in those chapters. That felt really important to me. I wanted her to be the centre of the story. I wanted it to be an epic story about a woman’s life. And for her to have all the attention and all the adventures and the growth, the errors, the virtues, that heroes like Achilles and Odysseus have in their stories.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote about a woman needing a room of her own. Circe needed an island of her own. That’s when her life begins. What role did solitude play in Circe’s formation?
Culturally, both in the ancient world and today, women are expected to be reacting to their family, taking care of their family, being corrected by their family, doing the things that their family, friends, husbands or fathers expected them to do. What the solitude allows is for Circe to be who she is without having her selfhood deformed by the expectation of her father, family, or society. She can finally say who am I, really? Who do I want to be? What do I believe in? I don’t have to think about doing something that is socially acceptable anymore so what do I want to do? I totally agree with Virginia Woolf. I think it’s very important for women – for everyone, but for women in particular because they have so many social expectations placed on them to interact with, serve others, and subordinate the self for others – to have that solitude. In order to be themselves without the voices around them that are telling them what to do.
The book is also marked by a real loneliness.
I wanted loneliness to be a piece of it. She made the decision that she didn’t want a conventional life. For her, there was a lot of loneliness associated with that. That was the price she paid. Eventually she finds people who would meet her on her terms. But it would take time.
How does Circe's identity as a witch separate her from the rest of the divine world?
That was one of the things that drew me to her. She’s the first witch in Western literature. Ancient witchcraft has some things in common with what became the Christian idea of the witch. The main thing you can connect all witches to is that witches are women who transgressed norms of female power. They represent anxieties about female power. Whoever witches are, they have more power than women are supposed to have. They are frightening because they are not controlled by society. They can’t be controlled by men. They can’t be controlled by anybody. Circe in the Odyssey is this incarnation of anxiety about female power. I think that does connect her to modern witches. And you still see it – modern day female politicians are called witches all the time.
I wanted it to be part of her power that was solely hers, and not related to her divinity. Witchcraft is something that you have to do. It's not something that just exists. It’s something you have to work for and work at. Therefore, it’s not something that people can take away from you. Because you create it yourself.
In Song of Achilles, Achilles’ goddess mother, Thetis, is a really foreboding picture of divinity, because we’re seeing the divine among the eyes of the human. But Circe grows up among the divine. What challenges did you face when looking at divinity through the eyes of an insider?
By the end of the novel, Circe and Thetis would have a lot to talk about. To Patroclos, Thetis is terrifying. But in the world of the gods, she’s basically nothing. She basically has no power. Nymphs are considered, for the most part, prey to the more powerful gods. I wanted to explore her from that aspect.
There were two challenges. If you have an immortal main character, they can’t be killed. Those are stakes automatically taken off the table. I also wanted to convey what it feels like to live for an eternity. Time would move differently. Without making that boring for mortal readers. I wanted to bring that in, that feeling of time being different. I also wanted to show and to have people feel that hierarchical nature of the Greek gods. If you were on top – if you were Zeus, Athena, Helios — life was pretty great for you. But if you were one of the lower ranking gods, you had very little protection. You could be sold off, abused, married off to whoever your father felt like. The preciousness of that situation, I wanted to bring to the floor.
Since Circe lives forever, she ends up encountering so many figures who become legends in mythology. Which of all of these interlocutors did you have the most fun bringing to life?
I really enjoyed a lot of them in different ways. One of my favourites, which took me by surprise, was Daedalus. I thought he’s such an interesting figure, the Leonardo da Vinci of the ancient world, basically. Like Circe, he straddles both worlds. The world between the gods and humanity. She’s on the god side, leaning over to the human side. And he’s on the human side leaning over to the god side because he’s so gifted, he’s drawn all this attention of gods and he can do things that are seen as godlike. They're able to meet in the middle in an interesting way.
Of course, Penelope. I knew Penelope was coming in the last part of the novel. I was so excited to get to her and Circe’s interactions. She’s such a fascinating character. She’s so different from Circe. If you look at Circe and Penelope in the Odyssey, Circe is the bad girl. Penelope is the good girl. She’s loyal to her husband. But she’s also incredibly smart. So she, too, is complicated. She’s not just this passive figure. She’s being forced to be passive, but she makes the best of it. She tricks the suitors. She does everything she can to hold her own. I was excited to have these two interesting, complex, smart women talk to each other.
It’s fitting that Circe is coming out not so many months after the first translation of the Odyssey by a woman was released. Were you aware of that while you were writing?
I didn’t know it was happening as I was writing. I first learned of the translation last summer, when I ended up reviewing it for the Washington Post. I was thrilled. I read it and loved it. I thought what [Emily Wilson] was doing was brilliant. And it was very exciting to think that that was happening, and that my book was going to come out after. I think it’s great that there’s so much focus on these ancient texts, including women’s views. But I don’t think that the value in Wilson’s translation is in just what she does for the women. It’s such a smart translation throughout. As a former high school teacher, that’s the translation students should read, period, from now on.
Do you hope that your book compels people to read the Homeric poems?
Absolutely. That’s always my greatest compliment that people can give me — when they say I read your book, and it made me want to read the Iliad, and then I read it. That is, to me, the nicest thing.
You’ve come a long way from the time your ex-boyfriend called this "Homeric fanfiction". You’re creating something new.
Yes. Well, I hope so. It was amazing to get to live in Circe’s mind, and to really look at this from her perspective, and to send her on her own odyssey. That was one of the main inspirations for the story. The theme of the Odyssey is this longing for home. Odysseus spends the whole book longing for nostos, or homecoming. And I wanted her to have a very similar feeling, except home isn’t as neat for her as Ithaca. She doesn’t know what that home is or what it looks like. She has to create it for herself, even as she’s longing for it.
Circe by Madeline Miller is out on 19th April, published by Bloomsbury.