Octavian Report: How did you first become interested in Homer?
Madeline Miller: I have loved Homer since I was a young child. My mother used to read to me bits of the Iliad and the Odyssey as bedtime stories when I was young. I have a memory of her reading the first line of the Iliad to me — “Sing, Goddess, of the destruction and rage of Achilles” — and feeling like I had touched this thing that I had never experienced before.
I read the Odyssey when I was in eighth grade and loved that, and then went on to high school where I had this wonderful Latin teacher who saw that I was obsessed with the Aeneid and all things Trojan War and Homeric and epic. He offered to teach me Greek and to start reading the Iliad with me, which was really this transformative experience. I had loved the story, but what really hooked me was the poetry. The poetry was so powerful it felt like this electric current going right into my brain.
Heading off to college, I already knew that I wanted to study this stuff. I actually picked my college based on the fact that it had, according to my teacher, one of the best Virgil scholars in the country. As I was studying Homeric epic in college, Achilles and Patroclus kept recurring and recurring and recurring. I knew at that point I was going to get my master's in Classics. I was planning to write my thesis on interpretations of Achilles' and Patroclus' relationship through the centuries and looking at all the different ways they've been portrayed. Then I graduated from college and I realized that I didn't want to write that as a master's thesis. I wanted to write it as a novel.
OR: Do you think Homer is one person? Or do you think the Homeric epics are the product of many hands over many years?
Miller: If there was a Homer, I don't believe that he was the sole creator of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I think it's so clear that these come out of oral tradition. Maybe there was one bard who was particularly shaping it. It's hard to say, but I don't think of Homer as being a historical person.
OR: Why Circe? Why did you choose her as the protagonist of your most recent novel?
Miller: I read the Odyssey in eighth grade, and as a young woman who loved these stories, I often felt very frustrated at the portraits of the female characters in the stories because oftentimes the female characters are ciphers. They're literally just names, or they die tragically to provide motivation for the hero (if their story is really exciting). Every now and then you get the larger characters like Antigone and Medea and Clytemnestra, but they almost exclusively meet tragic ends, and oftentimes they're cast as villains.
I knew that there was a witch in the Odyssey who turns men into pigs. I was really intrigued by that because it seemed so unusual for Ancient Greek myth. When we got to the part about her, I was really excited. I thought: here's a female character who can really stand up to Odysseus, and this is going to be a really interesting interaction that they have. What actually happens is that she turns Odysseus's men into pigs, then he goes to confront her. He has an herb that makes him immune to her spells, so when she tries to turn him into a pig, it doesn't work, and then he pulls his sword on her and threatens her. All her power and strength are immediately gone in that moment. She kneels before him, she screams and begs for mercy, and she invites him into her bed.
As a 13-year-old, I was frustrated by an interesting female character immediately being shrunk down to serve the hero's story. It felt like a very gendered moment: here's Odysseus with his phallic sword, threatening the female character, who has to immediately get on her knees and yield to him. That hit me really hard. I thought, "Gosh, there's so much more there." Then as I went back as an older student looking at Circe, I was interested in the fact that she has become, in popular culture, a very villainous figure. She often gets put in the same category as Clytemnestra and Medea. She's a villain in the Wonder Woman series.
In the Middle Ages, she was always the example of what happens if you can't control your wife: "This is what happens. She starts turning men into pigs." She was the incarnation of male anxiety about female power. If you look at her in Homer, though, after that confrontation with Odysseus she becomes incredibly helpful to him. She sees that he's grieving and exhausted. She invites him and his men to stay. She takes care of him for a year. At the end of that year, Odysseus doesn't want to leave her island — the only place that he does not want to leave in all of his travels to get home. His men have to taunt him. He goes to her, and then she immediately gives him incredibly helpful information about how he has to call the prophet Tiresias's ghost out of the underworld and how to do that and how to get past the Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis. For all of her menace, she becomes a benevolent healer and patroness. A goddess figure who is very powerful and gives him this witchy knowledge.
I think part of what I wanted to do is go back to the fact that she is much more complex than I think she's been remembered. I think people confuse her with the Ogygian nymph Calypso. They've become one fused female character, but she is very different from Calypso.
Circe is also the first witch in Western literature. That was very interesting to me. What does that mean? Finally, there was this detail in Homer that kept recurring where he called her "the dread goddess who speaks like a human." I.e., like a mortal. That was a really intriguing description to me because, as a writer, I heard that description and I heard a character caught between worlds. She was born a goddess but she has some piece of her that is either yearning for or belongs to the world of humans.