About a week ago (or so), I had the luxury of attending a Facebook interview with Madeline Miller and a light bulb went off above my head. YES! Madeline Miller! I love her books, I should blog about her. I mean, I have never read a better book that combines my love of a good story and Greek mythology. And I have read quite a few. In fact, my final project for my Young Adult Literature class for my library science degree was all about retellings of Greek Myths.
Her books are so well thought out, deal with complex issues (as the source material does), but are also engaging and easier to read (in my humble opinion) than the source material. The genius of her work is that it actually did make me want to go back and read the Iliad and the Odyssey.
(Side note: I’ve only managed to read 1/4th of the Odyssey – my high school English teacher divided the book among the class so all of us only had to read one part of the book)
Then I looked at the Iliad. Oy. That is one hard book to read.
One of the absolute joys of Miller’s work is that they work both in print and as audiobooks. I know because I’ve enjoyed them both ways. First as an audiobook and loved them both so much that I grabbed print copies too.
The Song of Achilles follows the life of Patroclus, the friend and lover of Achilles, one of the heroes of the Iliad. After being kicked out of his own home, Patroclus is taken in the home of Achilles’ where he soon becomes Achilles’ closest confidant and friend. The two are sent off to study with the centaur, Chiron, where they learn how to think, fight and eventually begin their romantic relationship that would dominate their thoughts and hearts for the rest of their lives. To the point that they cannot rest until the ashes are mixed together and buried together. It is a beautiful, moving, and haunting portrayal of a friendship and relationship between two complex characters.
Circe, on the other hand, is a portrayal of the goddess Circe, who, to be honest, I had forgotten from the story of The Odyssey. I’m so glad I read this, both as a woman wanting a more feminist take on Greek mythology (anyone else think there are far many male-focused myths?) and a character that isn’t explored nearly as much even within the source material. Circe is only seen as a detour for Odysseus not as an individual in her own right. Her story starts with her (unhappy) childhood and her banishment to Aiaia – an island somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean (scholar’s still aren’t really sure where it is).
There are so many facets to Madeline Miller’s work. She is the master at the interpretation of Greek mythology because she uses these stories to explore the ideas of fate, destiny, tragedy, grief, choice with amazingly thought out characters. Listening to her speak, she forced me to consider ideas behind her work that I hadn’t thought about. Such as:
-Are gods and monsters real or are they metaphorical?
-Was Achilles immortal? If so, why was his mythical downfall (his heel) never mentioned? (Side note: Her answer? Since Homer never mentions Achilles’ heel in his narrative, she couldn’t use it. Also, her argument was that many myths grew (as all good stories do) through many retellings and that it was his abilities that were exaggerated which eventually led to the mythical heel. Therefore Achilles’ heel is NOT cannon.)
-Both stories are about outliers that find their place and their people. Patroclus becomes Achilles’ conscience and touchstone. Circe has a myriad of people including Daedalus, Medea, and Odysseus (the Who’s who of the Ancient Greek world, really) that visit her island and influence who she becomes.
Whenever she was in doubt about where her characters would go, she would use Homer as her touchstone. You can rest assured that her stories are faithful to Homer’s originals.
As a lover of greek myths, I cannot recommend these books strongly enough. However, the truth is that her stories are so good that you don’t need to be a lover of greek myths to read them, you’ll be a lover of greek myths because you read them.
Song of Achilles, published 2011
Circe, published 2018