‘Circe is a self-made woman’
Novelist Madeline Miller on the freedom and power of the Ancient Greek witch.
A Latin, Greek and Shakespeare scholar, Madeline Miller is perhaps now better known as the author of two critically acclaimed novels based on Ancient Greek mythology. The Song of Achilles, her New York Times bestseller, was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, and her latest novel, Circe, has proved similarly successful, dominating ‘best of’ lists for 2018.
And it is easy to see why. While feminist retellings of well-known stories, the attempt to write ‘herstory’ rather than ‘history’, can often feel a little clunky and predictable, Miller is able, through her adaptations of aspects of Greek myth, not only to raise interesting questions, but also to create compelling stories in their own right. Circe showcases her talents in this regard. Miller takes Circe, an interesting extra in Homer’s The Odyssey, and has her narrate her own story as a self-made woman – an outcast who manages to transform herself into the most powerful witch in Ancient Greece. And in doing so, she reveals as much about being human as being a woman.
So what can we learn from returning to Homer? How much has changed in our attitudes to morality and humanity since Ancient Greece? And is Circe the unsung heroine of Greek mythology? spiked spoke to Miller to find out more.
spiked: What is it that grips you about the Greek myths?
Madeline Miller: I think for me it is a combination of things. I came to them because my mother used to read me little bits of The Iliad and The Odyssey at bedtime. On the one hand, they were incredibly exciting, full of passionate adventure. I remember being completely electrified by the first line of The Iliad – ‘sing goddess of the destructive rage of Achilles’ – and immediately wanting to know who is Achilles? Why is he so angry? I was completely drawn into that story.
But I think, as I got older, what really resonated with me was the poetry and semantics. These are stories about human nature, and to me they have always felt incredibly modern even though the cultural trappings are different. Human experiences of going to war and grieving and love, difficult family relationships, longing – all these things continue to come back. So I think it was the continuity, and how much it felt like it applied to my life and to the modern world, that drew me to them.
spiked: What was it about Circe in particular?
Miller: I think I was really drawn into the mystery of her. In The Odyssey she shows up, turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, but we have no idea why she does that. Homer doesn’t tell us. She is also an incredibly powerful female character who immediately gets subordinated to Odysseus’ story. He shows up, they have this conversation, he pulls his sword on her and that’s it – she’s down on her knees and immediately everything is all about Odysseus’ story. So there was this opportunity to hear her side of the story. Even more so because that section in particular is narrated by Odysseus – it’s him telling the story of it. So, all of a sudden, not only is it the male heroic tradition, but it is also Odysseus’ self-burnishing legend of overcoming the powerful witch who then throws herself on him and wants to sleep with him. I think that there is a lot of room there for saying: okay, this is how Odysseus wants this story to look, but how would it look from her perspective?
I think I was also drawn to the fact that she is the first witch in Western literature. She’s very much a self-made woman – witchcraft is something that you do in the ancient world. And so, yes, she’s born a goddess, but she makes herself into a witch. She finds a way around the traditional misogyny. She’s born into a role where she doesn’t have any agency or power in her own life, and she finds a way around that.
spiked: Was that something important for you, that Circe could be a creator of her own destiny?
Miller: Yes, I was thinking of that. I started from the idea that she was a nymph. Nymphs in the ancient world were either pawns or prey – getting chased by Zeus, assaulted, raped, married off to people they didn’t want to marry. That is her background, she is under the control of the family. Initially, she tries to work with her family – she wants her father’s approval and wants to be good. But, at some point, she comes to the universal understanding that oppressors are not suddenly going to turn around and give their power to you. Appealing to whoever is oppressing you to ‘do the right thing’ is not historically successful. And it’s not successful in Circe’s case. You have to make a big noise, you have to cause a problem.
It is not clear how witchcraft works in Ancient Greek mythology. And one thing we see is that Circe and her siblings are all witches in the original mythology. Her brother, Aeëtes, is the father of Medea, her sister Pasiphaë is the mother of the Minotaur, so that’s where it came from in terms of the myth. But I was very interested in the idea that witchcraft was blood-related, because there are many other later witches. I thought, well, there has to be something else, it isn’t really about blood. And, to me, what it came to be about was work. That is the thing that she is willing to do that most gods are not – she is an incredibly determined worker, and she’s willing to fail and try again. I have always found that an incredibly admirable quality. She has this vision for how she wants the world to work – and that is a piece of witchcraft as well. You have to be able to envision what you want, envision the better world, and so those two pieces became the core of witchcraft for me: being able to imagine what you’d like to see, and do the work to create it.
spiked: Circe meets Prometheus at the start of the book. He is the god who allows human beings to be masters of their own destiny through the gift of fire. Were you setting the tone for the book with that secret meeting?
Miller: Yes, I was. Childhood is often so confusing because we’re born into a family and that family is our whole world. It’s like we’re living in this bubble, and everything our family does we take as being completely normal. And then, at some point, we start to spread out and look outside the bubble and see that there are all these other bubbles with people in their families who are completely different from us. At root, I think Circe is someone who is born into this family, and she has these feelings of discomfort. She feels like she doesn’t really belong, she feels like she can’t name why. And then when she meets Prometheus for the first time, she sees another worldview, another way to be. And I think these moments are always incredibly important in the way people grow up and come of age.
spiked: One thing that makes her different from her family is her deep sense of morality. She feels pain at Prometheus’ suffering. She mourns the creation of the Minotaur and the lives that will be sacrificed in its name. Why did you make that a defining feature of her character?
Miller: That idea was sparked by a detail in Homer’s text, where he describes her as ‘the dread goddess who speaks like a human’, like a mortal, and he just leaves that and moves on. There’s not really an explanation of what that means. But that description really worked on my imagination – what does it mean to be born a god but to speak like a human? To have this piece of you that belongs to another world? There is another reference, in Ovid, where he describes Circe as having a ‘quality that is more fitted for love’. Ovid is referring to romantic love, which is not that interesting to me, but I took it more as empathy. And she shows this in The Odyssey. Yes, she turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, but then she becomes one of the most helpful characters who he encounters. So she has that benevolence to her in The Odyssey and this impulse to help and to be understanding.
Those two things became linked in my mind – her ability to talk with humanity and her ability to show empathy and feel pain. I think empathy is one of humanity’s greatest gifts. If you look at the gods in the Ancient Greek stories, today we would call them sociopathic narcissists. They don’t care about anybody except for themselves, and they are willing to step on anybody to get what they want. They don’t change, grow or learn. Yet here is Circe, a goddess of transformation, who, unlike most of her family, can transform herself. The pain she’s able to feel for others, as well as the regret and the remorse, is all linked to her ability to communicate with humanity.
spiked: In your book, Circe crafts her own story, using her own voice and her work on the loom, gifted to her by Daedalus. How important was that to you?
Miller: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the single story, in which there emerges only one voice and one story about something. When that happens, we take that single story for fact. And so part of what I wanted to do was to explore the story of Odysseus, which is so beloved and so known, and interrogate it. I wanted to listen to some of the other voices in the story, and think about how they might experience things. Circe knows, as a woman, an outsider, and a witch, it is unlikely that her story is going to be entered into the record. But she’s going to tell it anyway. And that telling is important. I wanted this to be about storytelling.
Odysseus himself is the great storyteller – he is always shaping reality around him. Because that’s what stories do: they shape reality. They are how we understand and spin events and how we see ourselves and how we see others. To have her as the narrator of the story, with that distinct and strange voice, felt really important.
spiked: Some of the reviews have argued that this is a feminist retelling of the classic Greek myth. Is that fair?
Miller: Sure, I imagined it as a feminist project. But, on the other hand, why is a story that sets a woman at the centre abnormal? I wish that it was normal to have a complex woman and her own ideas and own life story at the centre of a book.
In the Greek myth, Circe is clearly a representation of anxiety about female power. If a woman has power, then men are being turned into pigs – this is what happens when women get power, men are in danger. Odysseus has to pull his sword on her (very phallic) and she has to kneel before him and then become the help-me to his story. He re-exerts control over the situation. And I think that is a sad way to look at the world. It’s such a zero-sum way of thinking about things – that if we give women power, it takes away power from men. That is how we were thinking 3,000 years ago and we’re still having the conversation about it now. That feels shocking to me. The more freedom and power women have, the more men have, too. In a society where 50 per cent of the population is being restricted, it won’t just be women who are held back.
Take Odysseus’ son Telemachus. In my version, he really struggles with what it means to be Odysseus’ son and the expectation that he has to follow in his father’s footsteps. He doesn’t want to follow in the traditional heroic path. But he, too, is stuck and is being herded by society into this particular role. I wanted to look at constriction across the board.
Madeline Miller was speaking to Ella Whelan.
Circe, by Madeline Miller, is published by Bloomsbury. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)