An Interview with Madeline Miller

OR: Are there other references to her outside the Odyssey?

Miller: There are three major myths about her outside the Odyssey. One of them is in Ovid. He included her in the Metamorphoses because she is a goddess of transformation. He's the one who comes up with the idea that it was Circe who turned Scylla from a nymph into the monstrous, six-headed being that we see in the Odyssey. That was a great story and one that I really wanted to include, even though it's not Homeric at all. There's a love triangle between Circe, the nymph Scylla, and Glaucus, a sea-god who used to be a mortal. Ovid is interested in Circe as this pathetic, lovelorn figure who's always falling in love with the wrong guy, and when he rejects her she gets angry and lashes out. It's more about her as the woman scorned; about her power and rage. So I pushed back against Ovid a little bit. I wanted there to be a little bit more psychological underpinning for why she does what she does, but I also wanted there to be consequences that she, having done this thing, has to live with — which is not in Ovid at all.

There's a reference to her in Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica. Jason and Medea show up on her island, looking for absolution for having murdered Medea's younger brother. They're there to receive Circe's help. Circe is, of course, Medea's aunt. That was really interesting, knowing that there's a meeting between these two great witches (who are related) in ancient literature. I definitely wanted to include that.

Then there is the Telegony, an ancient epic that is lost. We have it in summary and we have references to it that talk about Circe's son with Odysseus: Telegonus. He's raised by his mother. She sends him off when he comes of age to go find his father. He and his father get in a fight, each not knowing who the other one is. Tragically, Odysseus dies, and then Telegonus brings Penelope and Telemachus back to the island of Aeaea. (All of these are terrible spoilers for the novel. On the other hand, the stories themselves are 3,000 years old, so . . . .) I knew the Telegony really covers the last quarter of the novel, and I knew that Penelope and Telemachus were waiting for me there. Other than that, everything else was drawn from inference and implication in the original text. There were a few missed references to her that I left out. There is a reference to her changing Picus into a woodpecker in Ovid and in Virgil. That myth just didn't speak to me. Sometimes she has more than one child with Odysseus, which seems to me pretty strange given that she does not have triplets and he's only there for a year, so I got rid of those other children. The number of siblings she has changes depending on the myth. Sometimes she has two siblings, sometimes one, sometimes three. I went with three. I got all my anxiety about having to follow the myths exactly out in writing my first novel, The Song of Achilles, so with Circe I felt like I could just choose what was useful to me and get rid of the rest.

OR: Do you have a sense of what the general view or role of women was in Bronze Age Greece?

Miller: I think when you're reading Ovid, it's hard to avoid that feeling that nymphs are prey, basically; that beautiful women in general are prey and that their beauty invites that and that's what it's for. I wanted to acknowledge this repulsive aspect of many of these stories. Many of these stories are rape narratives. I love Ovid, but when he's talking about Daphne's running away from Apollo and her hair gets loose and it's flowing, and it's even more beautiful and Apollo is even more inflamed by her beauty as she's running away in terror from him — moments like that hit the modern ear in a very disturbing way. I didn't want to be soft-pedaling any of that.

As I said, I think Circe is the incarnation of male anxiety about female power. I think nymphs in general are a fantasy of female powerlessness: they are like fruit to be picked, they're there for use, and they don't really get to have any agency over their own life. That was a really important part of the story for me. In some ways, that came out of The Song of Achilles. One of the characters I loved exploring in The Song of Achilles was Achilles's mother, Thetis, who is a sea nymph. In The Song of Achilles, she is a terrifying figure to Patroclus, the narrator. She's a goddess. She's the mother-in-law from Hell. He is constantly in awe of her divinity, but although I saw her as his antagonist for a lot of the book, I never saw her as a villain. All she wants to do is save her son's life, and she can't do it. She is going to have to lose her son and then live without him and with that grief for eternity. That, to me, seems like a parent's worst nightmare — that you would lose your child and then live with that grief forever.

In Circe, I think part of what also drew me to her character is that she is born one of these nymphs, these completely powerless figures who really cannot defend themselves in any way unless they get a greater god to do it for them. Yet somehow she invents her own power. That's, for me, where the witchcraft comes in: she goes around the system. She says, "Okay, I don't have any divine power, but I can create this other path to power and dissent and independence through my witchcraft."

OR: How did you think about creating the world of Circe?

Miller: I definitely wanted it to feel immersive and strange and alien and bizarre. I love looking at mosaics of Oceanus with the sea creatures all around his head. I looked at a lot of stuff like that because I was working with the Titans. A lot of the early scenes are set in the halls of either Oceanus, Circe's grandfather, or in her father's hall with Helios, the god of the sun. The Titans are older, almost chthonic divinities who are associated with nature in a stronger, different way from the Olympians. Both their palaces are underground. There's this kind of surreal-ness to some of the characters who are part person, part fish. There's an overwhelming sensory power: the glittering of the gold, the outlandish wealth, these bizarre figures who are river gods and sea gods and don't really look like humans. It was something I thought a lot about and I could see very vividly myself. I'm a theater director. That's my other background, and so I always want the audience to feel like they're on the stage and the action is happening around them.