Ancient tale made anew

14 Aug 2019 / 11:45 H.

WITH her first novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller not only established herself in the literary world but was also awarded the prestigious 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Miller, who attended Brown University in the US where she earned her BA and MA in the Classics, has been tutoring Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high-school students for the past 20 years.

The Song of Achilles is set in ancient Greece where Patroclus, a prince who has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia, forms a strong bond of friendship and love with Achilles, the prince of Phthia (whose mother Thetis is a cruel sea goddess), and together they join the armies of Greece and go to war against Troy when Helen of Sparta gets kidnapped.

Miller’s latest book is Circe, based on a goddess that Greek hero Odysseus encounters during his voyage back home after the Trojan wars in Homer’s The Odyssey.

In a tele-conference call with Miller in Pennsylvania, we spoke about Circe and how the idea to write a story about her came about.

“I always wanted to write about Circe,” she explained. “I have to go where my passion takes me. She was really the character I most wanted to write about.”

“ So I really wanted to think about her story. I knew I had to involve Penelope (Odysseus’s wife) because she was an important part of the story.”

“But it was Circle’s story that I was really drawn to. Possibly any of the female characters in The Odyssey could make a great novel, but Circe is the one who spoke to me personally, and she was the one I was interested in.”

To develop Circe’s story – starting from the palace she was born, growing up in the household of her Titan father Helios, her relationship with her siblings and other characters, and her isolation on Aiaia – Miller said: “One of the things I loved about these ancient stories is that they are so human.

“We know that The Odyssey at its core is this story of this exhausted, world-weary hero after this great war, and what happens when he tries to return home and the struggles that he faces.

“Part of what I wanted to do about Circe’s story is to make her incredibly human. I imagined her as having this story that many women could relate to, of having to find her voice, her own path.”

“ She is born into this society that doesn’t allow her any power over her own life and she has to go out into the world to find her own way, her own family and friends that are like her.”

In making her more human, Miller said that she was in fact taking her cues from Homer.

“Because that is how Homer describes her, the Goddess who speaks like a human. It was that little hint from Homer that I sort of spun out, and really thought about and dug into.”

While the Greek gods and goddesses are not known for having empathy, Circe does develop empathy for humans.

“She is a sad judge of character at the beginning of the novel. She can’t tell who the good or bad people are. I wanted her to have those divine impulses, but [also] struggles.”

“Sort of like Prometheus (the god who gave humans fire) she wants to find a different way. Instead of being this destructive, capricious force in the world, she wants to be a good force in the world.”

Homer also wrote that Circe has a temperament for love, unlike other goddess.

Miller said she connects with Circe’s empathy. “I see empathy is humanity’s greatest gift – when we use it.”

Other famous Greek mythological heroes, monsters, and gods are also added to the story.

“I wanted it to be very organic. There are so many myths in Greek mythology and I did not want to be cramming things that did not make sense. I wanted to add in stories that are connected to her, or could be connected to her.”

The book also reimagines the origins of the infamous Minotaur, who in the book (and mythology) is the child of Pasiphaë, Circe’s sister.

“There is no scene in Greek mythology where Circe goes help with the birth of the Minotaur. That was completely made up by me.”

The part of the story where Circe meets Pometheus is also made up by Miller, who said that Circe’s father Helios and grandfather Oceanos played a part in Prometheus’ story.

“I was looking for opportunities like that where I could allow her story to enter and touch another major myth.”

Miller is already working on her next book and while the possibility of revisiting Homer is there, she also admits to liking Virgil’s works.

Circe is also going to be adapted into an eight episode series by HBO Max.

email blast