By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
“At moments of great confusion or great uncertainty, we seem to want to go back to the classics,” author Madeline Miller told the Current via telephone from her home outside Philadelphia when asked about her tale of ancient gods and monsters, of witchcraft and sailors. In our modern lives filled with the noise of tweetstorms and influencers, and harsh, heart-breaking realities, how can we connect to Homer’s Odyssey or a book inspired by it?
Like the Odyssey, Miller’s novel Circe, (Little, Brown, 2018) speaks to enduring fears and anxieties, and to our shared humanity. Now, more than ever, we need Circe. “It is comforting on some level to feel that we’re not the first people to be lost and make mistakes,” she says.
If you know the story of the Odyssey, you know a little bit about Circe, a witch who lives on the island of Aiaia where Odysseus and his crew wash up. She doesn’t play a huge part in the epic, but she is quite memorable. She turns Odysseus’ men into pigs — that’s the part people always remember.
As both a novelist and a classics scholar, Miller is uniquely suited to splash about in the same waters with Homer, but her navigation of Circe’s life opens the story up in an entirely fresh way, one that considers the differences between power and craft, and charts a hero’s journey towards fundamental decency without ego, recognition or ceremony.
“Many of us grew up with these myths, loving them but also feeling — this is very true for me — feeling a very profound sense of frustration. Where are the female voices? Why is it only male voices? Other than Sappho. Even the female stories that we have are all told and composed and written by men. There is a desire to expand the lens and imagine all these other perspectives, these silenced perspectives, of women, of slaves, of outsiders,” Miller says.
Circe’s story starts much earlier than her encounter with Odysseus, while she, a minor god herself, is still roaming the halls of the gods before she is eventually banished to her island. She does, in fact, turn Odysseus’ men into pigs. She has very good reasons, though.
Circe reckons with Scylla, a six-headed sea monster, the torment of every sailor who passes by from Homer’s Odyssey. And she goes up against the Trygon, fearsome, primordial deep sea monster of Miller’s own imagination.
If you hold Circe to your heart, you can hear echoes of Homer’s timeless story of a soldier longing for home and family. Miller’s story is a likewise ageless tale, one of longing for meaning and connection within the context of exile. “We’re in a moment in the world where we’re seeing so many refugees, so many people with complicated feelings about their homes,” she noted.
As we follow Circe on her refugee journey, she doesn’t fight wars or sail the seas. Rather, she communes with nature; she walks her island gathering herbs and barks and flowers to hone her craft (witchcraft is a demanding art form.) She lives with a lion the way most of us live with a rescue dog or cat. She learns, in short, who she is and how she wants to live.
These are questions that have been wrestled with by thinkers across all time, from Rabbi Hillel to Vicktor Frankl, from Hypatia to Hannah Arendt. How do we understand displacement? What gives our lives meaning? What does it mean to be human?
“Human futures are always uncertain — it’s about taking a leap of faith into that unknown. That was very moving to me,” Miller says. “One of the things that I loved about Circe, one of the things that made her a real pleasure to write is that, even though she makes many, many mistakes in the course of her life, takes wrong turns, and hits dead ends, she never gives up. I think that is part of that hope. She is always trying to do better.”
Miller’s page-turning novel manages to explore unfathomably deep waters. For Miller, and for Circe, the fact of death, the reality that human lives are finite, is what generates hope, creativity and empathy. It is a love letter to mortality itself.
“I have always believed that empathy is humanity’s greatest saving grace. It always has felt instinctively true that empathy is in some way connected to our shared experience — we’re all on this earth together and we’re all going to suffer, and we’re all going to die at some point — so we have to help each other.”