Madeline Miller on “Circe,” Mythological Realism, and Literary Correctives

Madeline Miller is a Boston-born writer who currently lives in Philadelphia. Her degrees include a BA and ...

Madeline Miller is a Boston-born writer who currently lives in Philadelphia. Her degrees include a BA and MA in classics from Brown, and her first novel, The Song of Achilles, won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. Her 2018 novel, Circe—critically acclaimed and a fixture on the New York Times best-seller list that year—is a sort of Odyssey from the side. It begins as the story of a few of the women who have crucial parts to play in Odysseus’s rambling, manly road trip, but as the novel goes on, we realize that its “mythological realism” is polyphonic, satirical, and, in the best sense of the word, upsetting.

In planning the first few episodes of Recall This Book (a new podcast partnered with Public Books), we quickly put Miller on the top of our must-interview list. Below is an edited version of our conversation with her. You can listen to the whole thing, which includes Miller reading two wonderful passages from Circe and her recommendation of related books, here, or by subscribing to Recall This Book on iTunes, or Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Madeline Miller (MM): I was born in Boston, but when I was about a year old, my parents moved to New York City, so I grew up in Manhattan, close enough that we could go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was a huge part of my upbringing. My mom would take me at least once a month; we would go and look at the Greek and Roman collections and the Egyptian collections, as well. Those were my favorite. My poor mother: I think she always wanted to go look at the impressionists, but I was very insistent.

And then we moved to Philadelphia, for high school, and that was where I found my wonderful Latin teacher who taught me Homeric Greek. He saw that I was completely obsessed with these stories and took me aside, and said, “I can have you reading the Iliad in the original in about a year.” I said, “Sign me up.” So, he did this small group meeting with me and a few other students. We met on early morning Saturdays and before school. For a teenager, that’s a really epic amount of effort, but it was all worth it.


Gina Turrigiano (GT): That makes me wonder what besides the Iliad and the Odyssey inspired this story about Circe. There are only a few lines about her in the Odyssey, yet you’ve spun this wonderful, rich, deep story.


MM: Well, there are four major sources about Circe, and that’s pretty much it. One is Homer’s Odyssey; another is Ovid. In the Metamorphoses, she’s the Goddess of Transformations—and that was the source of the love triangle between Scylla, Glaucus, and Circe. I’ve shaped it a little bit. Ovid is really interested in her power and her magic and her anger. He’s not really interested in her psychology in the same way. He makes her a very pathetic figure: she’s always falling in love with the wrong guy, and then she gets angry and lashes out. So, I wanted to give her much more of a psychological reason for doing what she does, for making this terrible mistake, and then, more importantly, I wanted to make her live with it.

The meeting with her niece Medea—the other great witch in ancient literature—comes out of the Argonautica. Jason and Medea really do show up on Circe’s island looking for absolution from their various crimes. Medea does veil herself, hiding herself from Circe as she does in my book, but the meeting between them is totally imagined by me—the dialogue and all of that.

The fourth piece that I was using doesn’t even really exist; it’s lost to us. It’s from an ancient epic like the Iliad and the Odyssey, but we only have it in summary. It’s called the Telegony. It’s the story of Telegonous, Circe’s son with Odysseus, growing up on the island of Aeaea, going off to find his father, then accidentally killing his father, and bringing his brother, Telemachus, and Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, back to the island of Aeaea. Getting to animate that, and imagine this meeting between Circe and Penelope, was incredibly exciting.

So, those were the four myths that I had. Everything else was me just kind of trying to figure out who this character was and who she would be, and there were some details within those texts that ended up being very important. Homer describes her as being “the dread goddess who speaks like a human.” He doesn’t really explain that at all—what it means to speak like a human. That was incredibly important to me in imagining her character: she doesn’t quite fully belong to the world of gods. She’s standing with a foot in two worlds. Also, there is a very quick line in Ovid where he describes her as having an ingenium—a temperament—that is more fitted for love. He means romantic love, but I took it to mean something more like empathy, which most gods (who today would be sociopathic narcissists) cannot experience.


John Plotz (JP): Did you feel you had to be in concert with those four texts? Or if you needed to flip some of them, was it okay to do that?


MM: I absolutely felt like I could flip some of them. In fact, there’s another story about her turning this guy named Picus into a woodpecker, in Ovid, but I just left that out entirely. It didn’t fit, didn’t speak to me. I was not interested in it at all. I did flip the Ovid a little bit—when she [Circe] falls in love with Glaucous. I think The Odyssey actually gave me the invitation to do that [rearranging], because the Circe section is not only contained within kind of the traditional male heroic model but is actually one of the parts of the Odyssey that is narrated by Odysseus himself, telling the story to the Phaeacians. If you look at it [in] that light, it becomes an incredibly self-serving story. Here’s Odysseus: he shows up on the island of this terrifying witch; he defeats her; she throws herself on him, and falls in love with him, and invites him to stay! It’s a story designed to make him look really good. So, I felt like I could push back. Actually, the ending of the novel is a huge pushback against mythology, because the Telegony ends with Circe, Penelope, Telemachus, and Telegonus all becoming immortal: she makes them all immortal, and they live as gods on the island of Aeaea. Again, that felt very uninteresting and unsatisfying, and I knew from the beginning that that was not the arc I was following. I felt like this is my Play-Doh, and I can do with it what I want.


Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth

By Lee Konstantinou

GT: Yeah, I find that arc really interesting. There’s a contradiction there, in that Circe is the only immortal who actually evolves and changes and learns, and the evolution of her understanding of the world and herself seems completely in contradiction to what the gods are like. They’re static. They never change. They have powers that were bestowed upon them that they didn’t have to discover, or learn to use. In your telling, she is moving towards mortality, even though she already has that property that makes mortality so interesting and beautiful. Why did you see it as important that she takes the last step?


MM: I really wanted her story to mirror the Odyssey. In the Odyssey [there] is this longing for nostos—the Greek word for homecoming. Odysseus is searching for his homecoming. Even once he gets to Ithaca, he still sort of has to find a way to defeat the suitors, and reestablish control over his household, and reestablish his relationship to his wife. I think Circe also spends a lot of the novel in her story longing for nostos. I wanted her to be looking for her family—her real family, her found family, and a sort of home, but she doesn’t know where it is. It isn’t like Ithaca. It doesn’t exist geographically; it’s something she has to decide and create. In that sense, I think she has all these qualities, but she doesn’t have a community. In order to have those qualities, she has to live entirely alone. So, the one thing she still lacks is connection.


JP: Do you call your work “world-making,” or “retelling,” or “rediscovery”? How do you think about it?


MM: I think about it as literary adaptation. Sometimes, I call the genre I write in mythological realism. Even though I said I feel very free to make changes, the truth is I really like to write closely to the text. For instance, even just little moments like when Circe is described in the Odyssey as having this beautifully braided hair, and it’s the moment that’s meant to make her seem very attractive and powerful and sexy. Therefore, the fact that she wants to sleep with Odysseus increases his status, as well. I wanted to sort of take those moments and transform them, and think, Well, why would her hair be braided? Maybe it’s because she’s constantly in the woods and tromping around, and that’s just practical. It would be coming from her perspective.

So, I like interacting with the text that way, and kind of taking little moments and trying to interrogate them, examine them—why they happen or what brings them together. Like the fact that, in the Odyssey, Circe is the one who tells Odysseus how to get past the Sirens. She’s the one who suggests that he tie himself to the mast, and leave his ears free. That was an incredibly telling moment for me: she understands him. You know, that is exactly the sort of person he is. Of course, he wants to hear the Sirens’ song, and then go home and tell everyone about it, because he’s the great storyteller.


JP: Is the adaptation a corrective or a rebuke to previous versions, or augmentation?


MM: I do feel like it’s a corrective in the sense that it’s a balancing, that the text has been so bottom-heavy and pulling really strongly in this one direction. So, not a corrective in the sense that I want to supplant the original, of course, not that I could even do that if I did want to, but I never want to supplant the original. I love these stories; I really cherish them. But it feels important to bring balance to the perspective—to say, “Okay, we’ve had three thousand years of the male-hero tradition; can we just pull on that a little bit and bring the female voices up?”


JP: Can I ask why you cherish them? I mean, given the things that you’ve revealed about them, like the bottom-heaviness of them, why not just toss them out? One of the things I appreciate with Le Guin is that desire to say, “Well, maybe we have been caught in the wrong dream for three thousand years—so, what if I proposed a different dream?”


Muses Explain Things to Me

By L. Gibson

MM: I love that Odysseus and Achilles are complete disasters as heroes; they made terrible mistakes. They’re incredibly proud and angry. They reign destruction down on the people around them—the people that they love, not just their enemies. Achilles’s name—there are a couple different etymologies for it, but likely it comes from grief to the people. Odysseus’s name is related etymologically to the word that means to be hated. So, Achilles, or Odysseus, is not who you would chose as an ideal hero, you know? Neither is a hero in the way we talk about heroes today—as moral exemplars. They are these larger-than-life figures who make terrible mistakes—like we all make mistakes.

In seeing their mistakes, we connect with our own humanity and flawed nature. I connect to all the characters—male and female—and characters who are different from me. I guess I would say that I do want it to be a corrective—in that I want it to be out there as another strong version of the story.


GT: I read the new translation of the Odyssey a few months ago and was struck by exactly that. Some aspects of their relationships with the gods are hard to relate to, yet there is also the familiar human aspect of their vanity, frailty, uncertainty, stupidity, their longing for connection with their families. It speaks to you through these many, many thousands of years, right? I also remember the first time I read the Odyssey as a kid and being so disappointed that you only got these little glimpses of these stories through Odysseus’s boastful storytelling. I wanted to know more about these characters, like Circe and Polyphemus. So, I wonder: Can you imagine wanting to tell more of these stories?


MM: Absolutely. I love the Emily Wilson translation [of the Odyssey], and I think she, too, is trying to provide a corrective to some of the traditions of interpretation as well as to the original. She titles the Polyphemus chapter “A Pirate in a Shepherd’s Cave”—a real reversal of the way we look at this dynamic. I was looking at a similar thing with Odysseus, one of the most beloved heroes [today]: there’s James Joyce, and there’s the Tennyson poem, and we see him as the smart one. But the ancients thought he was a very difficult and problematic character. Usually, he was the villain in most of the ancient pieces, the Odyssey excepted. Sophocles made him the villain, and he showed up as a very negative, deceitful, corrupt character in a lot of the stories. I wanted to bring in some of the darkness of his character, which I think Emily Wilson also brings out. She doesn’t soft-pedal some of his more violent and frightening moments.


GT: Right. The two faces of the trickster character.


JP: Maybe that’s a good context in which to go back to your term “mythological realism”? The Virgil example is really interesting, because, obviously, if you’re thinking about Virgil, you’re thinking about the story world Virgil is creating about Aeneas and the founding of Rome. Are you also thinking more like the Robert Graves, I, Claudius world: that is, the actual Rome in which Virgil was writing? Is your writing, your mythological realism, inhabiting both those realms—the historical as well as the story world?


Translators and Other Icons

By Lily Meyer

MM: I always want it to be inhabiting as many worlds as possible, and I think these stories are very political and connected to things in history. I came out of a tradition as a young person [that involved] reading a lot of magical realism. I loved magical realism growing up, not just mythology. I loved Isabel Allende and I loved [Gabriel] García Márquez and Julia Alvarez and all these sorts of magical realist writers. They were books that I read again and again. It just felt very natural to have those [mythological] components in the story, and I think they’re really doing something very interesting in the original. You know, Mary Renault does the opposite. She takes [the mythological elements] out, and I think that can be interesting, too. For me, I always wanted them in, because I think (like Ursula K. Le Guin said) those dragons can really serve us, you know?


JP: That’s totally fascinating, because I was thinking about how Renault pulls the mythology out. Or Rosemary Sutcliff’s gritty Roman Britain stories: everyone very, very dirty, very, very cold. Do you think of yourself as following along the same belief paths of the original poets or writers who were creators of the story? Do you understand yourself as doing the same things that the original poets also did? Do you think they, too, were consciously crafting stories in which they put in supernatural explanations? Or do you think they were just telling the world they saw?


MM: For Homer, I think it’s really hard to tell; but in Virgil’s case, he was an Epicurean. He definitely did not believe in the gods as he wrote them. In fact, I think that he uses the gods really as stand-ins (he alludes to this in the Eclogues) for political figures who have all this power; [compared to those political figures we’re] just ordinary mortals who are at their whim.


JP: So, can you imagine writing mythological realism of the present day? I’m not saying Percy Jackson, in which the gods go to summer camp, but could you imagine contemporary mythological realism?


MM: Absolutely, I also almost don’t think you need to even do that. I mean, I think we’ve had narcissists popping up and making things all about them for millennia. Stories about abuse of power and wanting to draw all attention to yourself and define the narrative are [all] things the ancients understood. You could absolutely translate it to modern times, but I think that it’s all there in the original, too.


JP: Did you have a vocation moment—a “Road to Damascus” moment?


MM: Yes, I did. When I was 13, I had this bizarre experience where my wonderful eighth-grade English teacher read us, I think, the last chapter of The Once and Future King. It was like electricity was running through my brain. It was the last class of the day, and I ran home and wrote a time capsule for myself to open 25 years later. I closed it up, and I didn’t look at it. Then, 25 years later, I opened it; it was just a couple years ago now. It said, “I want to be a writer; I’m going to be a writer.” But I had hidden that from myself.


The Return of Homer’s Women

By Eleanor Johnson

JP: Circe has made an immense impression on readers. [When you meet your readers], do you think it’s the book’s contemporary dimension that people are responding to, or do you think they like the distance that it creates?


MM: I think it’s both. I think I hear from readers who are experiencing it both ways, which makes me really happy, because I wanted it to interrogate the original but also say, “Look how it’s still us; it’s still people struggling with the same things.” I’ve always seen these stories as intensely modern, because I think that they are about human emotions and human life, even in very little ways. This is a really silly example, but there’s a beautiful scene in the Iliad where Hector and Andromache, his wife, are talking: she doesn’t want him to go fight, and he has to fight. [Then] their little son Astyanax sees Hector with his big war helmet on and starts crying, because his father’s wearing this big scary war helmet, and he doesn’t recognize him. The other day I was with my husband and our little daughter, and he put on this baseball cap for the first time. She had never seen it before, and she just lost it. It was like he became a monster to her, and I thought, This is that moment, this is that domestic moment! We know that Astyanax is going to be killed. We know that Andromache is going to be taken, so it has a much darker [element]—but Homer also understands those very sweet, simple family–person interactions. I love that, and I always want to bring those moments out.


This article was commissioned by Kelley Deane McKinney. icon

Featured image: Detail of Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse (1891). Wikimedia Commons