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'Circe' Gets A New Motivation


Author Madeline Miller first encountered Circe, the dangerous, irresistible witch of Greek mythology, when her class read "The Odyssey" in eighth grade.

MADELINE MILLER: And I got to the part where, you know, Odysseus lands on Circe's island. He is suffering and exhausted. And he sends part of his crew up to Circe's house. And she famously turns them into pigs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thirteen-year-old Miller was excited. Circe is one of the most powerful female figures in "The Odyssey." She thought it would be a really great showdown, but it's not.

MILLER: So he pulls out his sword. And she screams and falls to her knees and, you know, basically begs him for mercy and also offers to take him to her bed. And I remember this feeling of just utter disappointment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Miller held onto that feeling and, years later, wrote her emotional response as a novel. The contours of Circe's story are there, the sorceress alone on an island who transforms men into animals and has an affair with the hero Odysseus. But we also get the origins of Circe, a minor daughter of the sun god who has to discover she has power at all. And readers can also see what happens to her after Odysseus and his crew sailed back to Ithaca. WEEKEND EDITION's books editor, Barrie Hardymon, talked to Miller about her latest epic, Circe.

BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Circe's name means sorceress. And we often describe women as Circe who are dangerous or irresistible. But your Circe - she sort of starts out very, remarkably unpromisingly in a way, doesn't she?

MILLER: Yes. Well, I was really interested in the fact that aside from being - from becoming the first witch of Western literature, she starts out as a nymph. And in the world of Greek gods, things were incredibly hierarchical. So life was pretty good for you if you were a Zeus or Athena. But for those who are nymphs - the lesser, lesser goddesses - you were pretty much prey. The only power you had was pretty much your divinity. And so I wanted to start with that identity first and then talk about how she grew into her witchcraft.

HARDYMON: And Circe has to learn her craft.

MILLER: Yes. Witchcraft in the ancient world was something that you had to really work at. You had to harvest the herbs and do the right things to the herbs at the right time, saying the right words. And so I really liked that contrast between sort of the instant gratification of divinity and the hard work of witchcraft.

HARDYMON: There is - we do have the central set piece of the turning men into pigs. But you have given Circe a motivation beyond capriciousness. And I wondered if you always knew you were going to do that since that is her central story, at least in "The Odyssey."

MILLER: Yes. Well, I knew that I - you know, in "The Odyssey," there's no hint of a motive. And Odysseus never asks her, which I think is really interesting. And, you know, Homer never explores that. So what's the message there - that, you know, women are capricious and, you know, arbitrary, and they do cruel things just because they can? I think that's a very boring and shallow story if you look at it that way. So what draws Circe down that path is absolutely something that was kind of a part of the central conception of the story.

One of the things that I wanted is I wanted Circe's story to resonate with one of the major themes of "The Odyssey," Odysseus' yearning for home. And I wanted Circe's story to be animated by a similar longing for home. But she doesn't have it so easy as Odysseus does. Odysseus knows what home is. It's Ithaca. It's Penelope. But Circe has to not only yearn for home and find home, but she has to discover. She has to decide what that home is and make that home for herself.

HARDYMON: Circe is really looking for her humanity throughout the book. And it seems to me that where she lands isn't a place that what makes life worth living is the end of it, is mortal illness, is being mortal.

MILLER: Yes, because of what you have to give up in order to be a god. You have to sort of give up what makes us human, which is our ability to feel empathy, our ability to suffer consequences, to suffer in the first place, you know? Gods don't really suffer. The same way they get angry, you can, you know, cross them. But they don't suffer. And I think there - to me, there was something very powerful - that if you don't ever suffer, if you don't ever feel pain, how can you ever understand someone else's pain?

HARDYMON: Madeline Miller - her new book is Circe. Thank you so much.

MILLER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.