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Madeline Miller’s Circe at the British Library

Written by Caroline Spearing |

ICS Research Associate Dr. Caroline Spearing shares her response to an evening with Madeline Miller, who spoke about her latest novel, Circe, in conversation with Kate Mosse at the British Library on 30th April 2018. The event was jointly hosted by the Institute of Classical Studies, and supported by the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.


It’s not unusual for classicists to feel proprietorial about the ancient world, and perhaps above all about Greek mythology, which provided the gateway drug for so many of us. Attempts to tamper with the canon can come in for serious scrutiny and, often, harsh criticism – whether in 2004’s comedic Troy, or Colm Toibin’s 2017 House of Names, the history of the House of Atreus set in a dystopia closely modelled on the Northern Ireland of the Troubles.

However, as novelist Madeline Miller reminded us towards the end of her riveting conversation with Kate Mosse, this visceral sense of ownership is fundamentally misplaced. Myth belongs to everyone, and, moreover, myths exist outside any given literary or visual treatment. As such, as Ovid would no doubt have noted approvingly, it is endlessly mutable, endlessly adaptable to the preoccupations and concerns of any given time and place.

In today’s world, of course, and in a way that has acquired additional urgency since the breaking of the storm that is #metoo, those preoccupations centre on the previously-unheard female voice and on questions of female agency. Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005) gave a voice to Odysseus’ long-suffering wife. Robert Icke’s version of the Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre in 2015 humanised the husband-slaughtering Clytemnestra. Pat Barker’s forthcoming novel The Silence of the Girls reimagines the Trojan War through the eyes of Briseis as, to quote the Penguin website, she fights ‘to become the author of her own story’.

Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize) with her first novel, The Song of Achilles (2012). On 30th April, during a rare visit to the UK, she addressed an enthusiastic audience at the British Library on the subject of her second, Circe. The event, organised in association with the Institute of Classical Studies and introduced by our own Emma Bridges, took the form of a conversation with Kate Mosse, co-founder of the Women’s Prize and author of a series of highly successful historical novels including Labyrinth (2007) and the forthcoming The Burning Chambers. Like Miller, Mosse knows what it is to evoke the minutiae of a far-distant time and place. This generated some insightful discussion  of the challenge of conveying an historical setting without drowning the reader in detail. ‘You use maybe 1% of your research,’ remarked Miller.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Wine of Circe (1900). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Wine of Circe (1900). 

Miller told of her first encounter with Circe, as a teenager reading the Odyssey as a school text; of her fascination with this powerful and autonomous sorceress and her shock at her sudden capitulation. Turning to the character after completing The Song of Achilles, she explained, she felt a powerful urge to fill in the gaps in her story – and, above all, to come to understand what it was that made her turn Odysseus’ men into pigs. Research into Circe beyond the confines of Homer led her to imagine Circe in the context of a family which included Helios, the sun god; Aeetes, father of Medea; and Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur –  and what novelist, observed Miller trenchantly, will turn down the opportunity to write a Minotaur birth scene? Miller came to see Circe as a girl without agency in the midst of – literally – Titanic family conflict, empowered only by the practice of sorcery. To a hushed auditorium, Miller read, mesmerizingly, a passage from the novel describing the laborious and demanding process of concocting magic potions – a process sharply distinguished from the effortless supernatural agency of the gods.

Miller has also drawn on the Ovidian Circe, a largely comic figure prone to falling in love with the wrong man. Spurned by the handsome huntsman Picus, she turns him into a woodpecker. Her revenge on Glaucus is rather more grotesque – but I shall follow Miller in withholding spoilers from any readers unfamiliar with Metamorphoses 14. For Miller, the post-Homeric tradition enabled her to flesh out the story of Circe. It also provided her with enough material to confine the Odysseus episode to a mere two chapters – a neat inversion of the two Circe books of the Odyssey.

Illustration of Circe and Odysseus/Ulysses from Giovanni Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus (fourteenth century). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration of Circe and Odysseus/Ulysses from Giovanni Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus (fourteenth century).

For Miller, the creative process is one of Virgilian perfectionism. She needs to be able to hear her characters’ voices, to write down their stories as though taking dictation. To do this, she explained, she spends the first five years of a novel’s gestation writing, discarding, and rewriting the first fifty pages – perhaps fifty times in all. (She reminded us of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’) Only then do her characters have the authenticity to carry a novel.

Asked by an audience member whether she read a post-Weinstein message (‘All men are pigs’) into the story of Circe, Miller responded that she preferred to focus on the common theme of female silencing and disempowerment. Other questions stimulated discussion of Circe as the first sorceress in Western literature and of the misogyny underlying much of the discourse of witchcraft.

Why, we wondered finally, does Greek mythology still hold such sway over the imagination? Why, when the ancient world has become at best a peripheral part of the school curriculum, do artists and thinkers still look so insistently to Greco-Roman culture for inspiration and illumination? Perhaps the ancient world provides a reassuring sense of permanence and longevity in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world of upheaval and uncertainty. Perhaps, as Miller suggested, the myths of the Greeks and Romans show us that some intangible core of human nature can be preserved intact across dizzying tracts of time and space. Just as, at the close of the Metamorphoses, Ovid insists on his immortality through his writings in a world in which cuncta fluunt (‘everything flows/changes’), so the culture which he represents has survived: quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis/ nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas (‘which neither the wrath of Jupiter, nor fire, nor sword, nor the gnawing tooth of time shall ever be able to undo’). Ovid himself would surely appreciate the irony of using an example from Greek myth to explain Greek myth’s survival.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons