Madeline Miller: a feminist perspective on Greek mythology

Author of The Song of Achilles and recent release Circe, Madeline Miller is perhaps the most exciting voice of contemporary mythology retellings. The Song of Achilles, her first novel, narrates the story of the Iliad, following the lovers Achilles and Patroclus; Circe, on the other hand, retells the life of the sorceress by the same name, reclaiming her narrative and giving her a voice. The University of East Anglia was lucky enough to have her for the Literary Festival, and she did indeed give a brilliant interview.

The questions asked ranged from growing up around Greek mythology to feminism, women’s voices in writing, and the process of putting together such impressive novels. Miller’s mother raised her with stories from the Odyssey and the Iliad and at thirteen years old, the author encountered the figure of Circe in a class reading, getting incredibly frustrated with her disempowering treatment. Many years later, she felt she needed to reclaim the sorceress, and wrote a novel about her, with Odysseus only occupying exactly two chapters – a gesture that mirrors the two books of the Odyssey in which Circe is included.

Miller discussed the presence of women in writing, especially in epics, when an audience member asked how the novel might have differed had she written Circe as a man. It was important to her to have an epic, a mythology retelling, narrated by a woman; Circe’s personal Odyssey. The story explores the struggles of being a woman in ancient times and the idea of magic and sorcery, but it also takes on the theme of longing for home, which is so central to Odysseus’ journey. In Circe’s case, there is no home to return to – she has to reinvent the definition of home for herself.

Another interesting answer Miller gave was about her writing process. The Song of Achilles took ten years to assemble, Circe seven; both books were the opposite of spontaneous, and instead simmered around in her mind for a long time. She spent years ‘writing out’ –as she put it– the voice of Patroclus, and getting into Circe’s tone, reading a great amount of books in the meantime, and getting inspired by many of them. This part of the interview made it not only a great event for fans of her books, but also potentially useful for other writers themselves; her insights into what it is like to create such masterful novels were inspiring.
It is safe to say that Madeline Miller is not just a phenomenal author. She is a smart and fascinating woman, and a talented reader of her own work on top of that.


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September 2021
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