Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures: Madeline Miller

When she was young, Madeline Miller’s mother would read her passages from The Odyssey, and she quickly fell in love with Greek mythology and the classical works of Homer. Madeline Miller’s books, The Song of Achilles and Circe, are retellings of ancient mythology as well as acclaimed New York Times bestselling novels.

Miller was one of the visiting authors for the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series, which has been bringing acclaimed authors to Pittsburgh to discuss their literary background and novels. Miller’s visit was a rare opportunity to learn more about the celebrated author who transformed the modern perception of classical texts, broadening the literary horizon for many who have never read Homer.

During her talk, Miller discussed her motivation for writing The Song of Achilles and Circe. Both novels tell the story of an underdog and breathe life into otherwise one-dimensional side characters that are often forgotten. Regarding the writing of Circe, Miller felt that the original story, The Odyssey, constricted a powerful female character and portrayed her as being bested by the male hero, with the unrecognized truth lying under the surface.

Miller asked the audience to consider how often the word “witch” is still used to describe women who wield power that society cannot control. As a result, Miller said that Circe is often demonized in the media as a woman who is scorned by love and is vengeful towards men. Thus, it was particularly important that Miller took on a feminist lens when writing Circe’s character because she is a powerful female icon that forged her own path in the world, rather than being defined by society and other men.

Circe is most famous for turning men into pigs, and Miller wanted the reader to understand the reasons for her actions. She stated that "it is a pretty extreme thing to do, and it is treated in later literature as, ‘Well, you know women, that is what they will do to you.’” By giving Circe a life beyond The Odyssey, giving context to her life before and after Odysseus, Circe becomes a multi-dimensional character who has her “whole host of associations.” Told from the perspective of Odysseus, The Odyssey took on a very male-centric perspective where powerful females like Circe and Calypso were always subjugated under male power. Miller hoped to subvert this impression and revitalize Circe, as she wanted to “put Circe at the center of the epic, giving her the mistakes, the passions, the victories that the male heroes had by right.” Thus, including the other aspects of her life that did not include Odysseus was a crucial aspect of Miller’s story. Circe is not only a powerful witch, but also the daughter of Helios, the aunt of the Minotaur and Medea, and much more. Each of these stories that Miller found was weaved into a beautiful story of Circe’s life journey of “trying to find her way in the world and find her people in the world.”

When asked about her writing process, Miller stated that, as a classist herself, she used Homer’s original text, as well as other translations and Greek texts for reference. In particular, Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey played a crucial role in her own development of Circe. Traditional translations of The Odyssey are often still male-centric, but Wilson stayed true to Homer’s text while also offering a fair place for the women in the story. Miller mentioned that while she does do some preliminary research, she often goes back to her sources to find the “shiny pieces” that stick out to her and incorporate that in her story. She did extensive research on material culture, such as the daggers, loom, and clothes referenced in the book. Every single herb that Circe uses has been referenced at some point in traditional Greek texts.

Miller’s insightful talk answered many questions that her readers, including me, had about the story and her own motivation for writing the story. Listening to an author explain her own work is always an invaluable opportunity. The Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series is still ongoing, so don’t miss out on great opportunities to listen to more visiting authors.