Author brings fresh life to an ancient character: Madeline Miller breaks down her contribution to the world of Classics

The author of Circe, a New York Times bestseller and one of Time Magazine’s Best Novels of 2018 So Far, visited the Upper School (US) Almy Library on Friday for an informal interview with her friend and former Fessenden School colleague US Latin Teacher Walter Young.

Author Madeline Miller was welcomed in a small corner of the library’s main room by an audience that swelled from two dozen students and faculty to twice that number.

“Ms. Miller was a really good speaker, really eloquent,” Leyla Ewald ’19 said, “and until I heard her in person, I didn’t realize how much she was empowering ancient women, using the texts of the past to challenge the narrative and portray the women more fully.”

Circe tells the story of the Greek mythological goddess best known as the witch who turns men into pigs in The Odyssey. Ms. Miller said her goal in writing the novel was to invite readers to imagine that there is more to Circe than her role in Homer’s epic.

Ms. Miller opened the discussion by describing how Circe’s character fascinated her. She said she wrote about Circe, rather than another mythological figure, because Circe seemed lost between two worlds, that of a goddess and that of a mortal. Ms. Miller said she wanted to show there was a human aspect to Circe’s story, as she was born into a brutal family where she had no power and was forced to move away and make a new home for herself.

“Circe’s story was just waiting for me,” she said, adding that she felt the character say to her, “Now it’s my turn.” 

Ms. Miller said directing Shakespeare plays helped her find her voice as a storyteller, and she drew inspiration for the novel from a variety of source material, including Homer’s epic, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, and the lost epic Telegony, which follows Circe’s son with Odysseus. Although she said she originally felt nervous about how those in the Classics world would react to her interpretation of Circe’s story, she said she believes every rendition of these old stories entails a re-imagining by the teller and that storytellers familiar with the source material can present the material however they see it.

After reading The Odyssey, Ms. Miller said, she felt frustrated about Circe’s submissive nature toward Odysseus and decided to turn the tables on outdated gender roles and narratives dominated by male points of view.

“In The Odyssey, Circe was in two books, so in Circe, Odysseus was in two chapters,” she said, garnering laughter from the audience.

Talia Belz ’19 asked Ms. Miller how she decided on the novel’s ending.

Ms. Miller said she actually thought of the ending first and then worked backward to fill in the details. 

“I would pick up small moments and allow them to grow into [Circe’s] character,” she said.

US Librarian Laura Duncan said she thought the discussion was one of the most successful library events in recent history.

“I give credit for its success to Madeline Miller for being such an engaging speaker and to Dr. Young for being such a great interviewer,” she said. “It was quite a pleasure getting to hear from them both.”

Due to the author’s scheduling crunch, the event took place during B block, when much of the US community was in class. Dr. Young’s Latin 5 class and English Teacher Sarah Getchell’s English 9 group attended as part of their regular school day.

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