Here’s a Book Thing: Madeline Miller’s Greek Myth novels

I wept when I finished Circe earlier today.

Crying isn’t uncommon for me. I’ve always been a bit of a sentimentalist, but something changed in me when my father passed away, a decade past; the tears flow more now, brought on by concern or relief or love or drama. I recently brought this up with my mother, in passing, and she mentioned that she, too, noticed this change in herself, the ease with which emotion can well up within us.

And Circe is about emotion: love and hate, anger and resolve. It is about a woman who is sidelined by capital-F Fate and the uncaring gods and who refuses to succumb to that lowercase-f fate, to be nothing more than a footnote in history, lost to time and dust. She is a witch, yes, but most importantly she is a person, with agency and purpose and desires and dreams and fears.

This strikes at something that I have always found frustrating in ancient mythology. The gods are capricious, of course, horrible and random and merciless, but the explanation there is in their nature: they are without, not within, and not bound to the strictures of sensibility with which us mere mortals wish to bind our tales. First this, then that. This because of that, so obviously the other. But mortals, too, fall prey in the telling of ancient tales to whim and irrationality, betraying what we believe their true selves because the story demands the mad stroke, the ironic twist, the glorious death.

When Aphrodite spirits Paris away to the safety of Troy right as Menelaus is about to land that killing blow, we shrug: deus ex machina, the immortal saving the favored on a whim, what can we flesh and blood do but accept that breaking of the rules? But when Patroclus, calm compatriot of Achilles, tries to scale the walls of Troy in his lover’s armor, we blink and ask: why?

(Yes, I know that both of those bits come from the Iliad, not the Odyssey. We’ll get there.)

The glib answer is that it makes for an interesting story, characters acting mad when the tale needs a twist, a shock delivered to the audience huddled around a campfire or in a dining hall, to elicit that unbidden gasp, the lean forward that says: pray, dear poet, tell us more! The smarmy answer is that it’s lazy storytelling, forcing round pegs into square holes so that the outcome, the Moral of the Tale, can be reached even when the personalities involved begin to run in another direction altogether.

The sharper answer: perhaps the motivation was there all along, just waiting to be uncovered.

Madeline Miller has published two books so far. The first is The Song of Achilles, a telling of Achilles’ upbringing, rise to become the Best of the Greeks, and downfall at the hands of Paris and Apollo as told in the Iliad. Instead of telling that tale from the viewpoint of the hero, though, the book takes a much more interesting approach; we hear the tale from the mouth of Patroclus, a noble cast out from his family by an over-proud father, who comes to live with Achilles and eventually becomes his boon companion.

And lover. That their relationship is more than mere friendship is subtext-and-then-some in the Iliad, and Miller makes a smart choice here of going all in on the romance. It acts as the key to understanding much of Achilles’ behavior over the course of the story, indeed the structure of the myth itself. Why do the Greeks lay siege to the Trojans for ten years, an honestly ludicrous amount of time? Well, Achilles wants to spend more time with his lover, to spend more time living, because he knows what fate has in store for him. And when the worm turns and that love turns to ash, his madness and grief are his downfall in a way that is real and poetic and utterly devastating. I wept at the end of The Song of Achilles, too, and my heart aches just thinking about it now.

Circe does something that in some ways is even more interesting: it takes a character who exists on the edge of many myths, key to the Odyssey, of course, but also the Metamorphoses and other ancient tales, and provides her a true grounding. Rather than being an agent of Fate–which, in myth, is the same as being an agent of the storyteller–it contextualizes her existence as a woman in ancient Greece, thought of as lesser because of her nature and her meager powers but also because she committed that crime of simply being not male. Odysseus shows up, as he must, but their relationship in Circe is much more one of individuals who understand who they are and what what they should and shouldn’t do–and then do it anyway–than the necessary plot shenanigans to prepare our Stalwart Hero for the next set of horrible events that the storyteller planned to throw in his path.

And, vitally, the story is not just about Circe’s relationships with men, her intersections with those ur-myths that underlie modern Western civilizations. She is a mother, a lover, a witch, a minor goddess, and all of these are important to the tale. But she is a person, with failings and hopes and all the rest, even as the gods try to push her around on the draughts board of life. That is a part that most Greek tales reserved for men and men alone, and Miller reclaims it here.

I’ve never been able to make it all the way through either the Iliad or the Odyssey, but one of the advantages of being brought up in this modern Western era is that it’s hardly necessary. Reading this pair of books will bring you to many moments of almost forehead-slapping ah, yes, of course! obviousness when a tale ties back to a thing you knew and half forgot. The Minotaur and Daedalus and his son Icarus. Helen of Troy and Odysseus and Ariadne and Athena. The Golden Fleece, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, Jason and Medea. If the characters and references spark remembrance, then good; if not, fear not, because the tales are told well enough that it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to be a Classics major to enjoy these tales about the fundamentals of what it means to be human.

And it spoils nothing to say: love, of course. Not lust, like Zeus for every beautiful thing on the planet, but love, that of a mother for their child or a young man for his best friend and lover. And that is what these tales remind us of, filled with tragedy though they are: love is what makes us who we are, and it is what endures.

And it is love–of people, of words, of the world–that makes us weep.

Footnote: I wanted, somewhere in here, to draw a parallel between these books and Tim Powers’ “hidden histories,” in that Miller’s novels act as–if you’ll forgive the punning–hidden mythstories, wrapping the somewhat ludicrous tales of the ancient gods and heroes in the format of a modern novel that makes it all feel a lot more sensible. But the write-up turned to a more lyrical and less literal bent, and it felt too jarring to throw that comparison in there. So I cheat, and hide it here at the bottom. I’m no Alexander, and this no Gordian knot, but I know a good conceit when I see it. And thus: the point made, the flow unmarred. So the story flows.

4 thoughts on “Here’s a Book Thing: Madeline Miller’s Greek Myth novels”

  1. If you ever do want to go back to the source material, I’ve heard good things about Emily Watson’s recent translation of The Odyssey. Supposedly, she’s working on The Iliad next.

    1. Thanks! Looks like it’s actually Emily Wilson, for anyone who comes across these comments in the future. I’ll check it out for sure. (Literally; I just put it on hold at the library.)

      1. Blargh.

        Yeah, it’s Emily Wilson. I copy/pasted The Odyssey because I was afraid I’d misspell it then messed up the other part. =/

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