When Madeline Miller was five, her mother read her bedtime stories that weren't the usual children's fare. "Sing, O goddess, the destructive rage of Achilles …" her mother intoned, and they were off, into the thrilling world of Homer's Iliad.
"She knew me well, she knew I would like it," Miller says on the phone from her home outside Philadelphia. Now she knows her mother edited the story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, leaving out the boring bits, and the bits where brains splattered out of heads.
But from that first line, her daughter fell in love. "I thought, why was this person so angry? Tell me about this rage."
The love extended to Greek mythology. Young Madeline and her friends rode Olympic chariots made of cardboard boxes and made up plays: in one, Madeline played the many-headed Hydra.
When her family moved to New York City, she was astonished by the Greek statues in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, particularly a wounded Amazon, "so arresting and beautiful and filled with emotion".
So it was not surprising that Miller went on to study her passion. At Brown University she took a BA and an MA in Classics, and for more than 15 years she has taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high-school students. "I feel like I've been creatively engaging with these stories for a long time," she says. "But it was a little bit of a surprise to me when I began writing novels."
What turned her around was an invitation to co-direct a production of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare's play about The Iliad. "It was an incredibly revelatory experience, I was talking to Achilles about his motivation, I was directing a sword fight between Achilles and Hector. When the play was over, I didn't want to let go."
The eventual result was her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a New York Times bestseller translated into more than 25 languages. When it won the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction, judge Joanna Trollope said Homer would be proud of the author.
Now Miller has taken up the life of another mythical figure for her much anticipated second novel, Circe, and Ann Patchett has hailed it as "an epic spanning thousands of years that's also a keep-you-up-all-night page-turner".
Miller never dreamed of such a reception. "It continues to be one of the great miracles of my life, I still can't believe it. I thought the people who would buy The Song of Achilles would mostly be related to me by blood."
The inspiration for that novel came from the moment in The Iliad when Achilles learns of the death of his friend Patroclus. "Up to that point, Patroclus is a very minor character, and this is a poem where there's a lot of death. Then suddenly Achilles is trying to kill himself. Homer really shows us what it is to be completely overturned by grief. I was drawn in by the mystery of that moment. Who is this person who meant so much to Achilles?"
The answer she found was a love affair between Achilles and Patroclus. Homer never speaks of this, but there are other venerable sources for that idea, including Plato. The Song of Achilles grew out of Miller's attempts to imagine that connection, using Patroclus as her narrator: a devoted lover who nevertheless sees the flaws in his beloved.
And flaws there are aplenty, for unlike the modern concept of the hero, the ancient hero is a being of superhuman courage and ability, but not much moral virtue. And unlike the Christian god, the ancient gods and goddesses are a very frightening lot: "They only care about themselves, they do anything to get what they want, and if you cross them even by accident they will kill you and pursue your family down the generations."
For her second novel, Miller chose another flawed hero who has come down to us through the tales of Homer, Ovid and Virgil as the archetypal evil enchantress. The goddess Circe lives on an island with her tame lions and wolves, practising her witchy spells. When sailors visit her island, she welcomes them with a feast and drugged wine, then transforms them into pigs.
Such is the fate of Odysseus's crew, except for one man who reports back to his master. When Miller first read The Odyssey in translation at school, she was 13, and grew very excited at the prospect of a showdown between the hero and the witch. "I was thinking, wow, this is going to be a great scene, a battle of wits. Here's a female character who can stand up to Odysseus.
"But they have this confrontation, he pulls his sword – even my 13-year-old eyes could spot a phallic symbol – and she falls to her knees and screams and begs for mercy and invites him to her bed. I remember feeling so disappointed: that's it? She has to yield immediately, she has to get out of the way for the hero's story?"
Later, at college, Miller studied the story in the original Greek. What struck her then was that after they became lovers, Circe was a very wise, helpful and benevolent counsellor to Odysseus. "People remember her for her villainy, but how do you reconcile the two sides? And why was she turning men into pigs? Odysseus never asks her, Homer never addresses it."
Using the original sources and adding some inventions of her own, Miller created her own Circe, the star of a rollicking story of gods, mortals and monsters ("how often do you get the chance to write a Minotaur caesarian scene?") that is also a feminist tale of empowerment.
Circe does appalling things, but for a reason. As a goddess living on her own, she is trusting and vulnerable to sailors who visit her, and she's repaid with gang rape.
"Essentially she wants to see the world in a positive light," Miller says. The rape is "a particularly dark moment. She's been willing to give humanity the befit of the doubt and she feels betrayed. So she lashes out. She continues to experience that deep sense of rage and disillusion and it takes her a while to come back to herself."
When she was doing final editing work on the novel, Miller would turn on the television at the end of the day and be overwhelmed by news of sexual predators and the #MeToo movement. "It was a very eerie experience to see the very same things I'd been writing about."
Miller created a long backstory for Circe, who grows up in the halls of her father, the Titan sun god Helios, as the kind of girl parents neglect and siblings and fellow gods scorn. She's a nymph, the lowest in the divine hierarchy, with the voice of a mortal. "I wanted to explore what it felt to be one of those incredibly weak characters."
Circe takes revenge on a rival, the pretty nymph Scylla, by turning her into a monster. The original story from Ovid was "really thin and sexist", Miller says, but she gave her heroine a much stronger motivation. "I wanted Circe to struggle with her flaws just as Odysseus and Achilles do. She's on a journey away from divinity towards humanity, and she has to come to terms with this thing she did. There are torments and horrible consequences for the rest of her life."
Writing both novels was a long struggle for Miller (The Song of Achilles took 10 years, Circe took seven) and in each case she reached an advanced point when she threw everything out and started again.
She was five years into writing her first novel, she had an agent and was moving towards taking it to publishers, when she realised it was "horrendously wrong and I didn't know how to fix it… It was a very dark moment for me. I set it aside and took a non-fiction course. I was so depressed I couldn't take a fiction course, it was too close."
Being around other writers was "really refreshing" and refertilised her brain, she says. One day walking home from class, the first line of The Song of Achilles came into her head.
The problem was finding the voice of her narrator, quite literally: "I need to be able to hear the character as if on stage, giving a monologue." When working on Circe, she tried for the voice time and time again with no success, writing "probably 500 pages I junked".
Again, she took a break, worked on another project. One day she opened the Circe document and saw a way through. "I wanted her voice to combine directness and honesty and unflinchingness with a little bit of formality, as if she was speaking a language that's older than everybody else's language."
She knew when she'd found that voice: "It's like rolling a ball and it keeps going, you're not hitting any walls, it rolls smoothly and perfectly and draws you after it. It feels ineffable."
Circe is published by Bloomsbury at $29.99.
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