By Valerie Nikolas
Power. It’s the theme of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF), now in its 30th year of attracting compelling and thoughtful speakers to Chicago. It’s also the central theme in Circe, a 2018 novel that flips the power dynamic of Homer’s classic Odyssey on its head, giving a fresh voice to one of Greek mythology’s most misunderstood characters: Circe, the witch who turns men into pigs.
Madeline Miller, author of Circe and Song of Achilles, speaks with the kind of quiet, self-assured power that comes from writing two New York Times best sellers. She was joined in this CHF event by WBEZ’s Greta Johnsen, anchor of “Weekend Edition Saturday” and producer of the “Nerdette” podcast, whose enthusiasm bubbled over as she told the audience that of the 77 books she read in 2018, Circe was her favorite. The event took place on the Northwestern University Evanston campus.
Miller and Johnsen’s conversation reflected on themes of power, particularly female empowerment, and interpreting ancient works using new voices. “It’s important to revisit these stories because there were many voices that were silenced in the original versions,” Miller said, including slaves, ethnic minorities, and women.
Miller’s love of classics started young, she explained. She first read Homer’s works in her early teens, then again in Ancient Greek at age 16, after one of her high school teachers encouraged her to learn the language. She wrote her master’s thesis about depictions of Patroclus and Achilles’s relationship in The Iliad. Ten years later, this research resulted in her first novel, Song of Achilles.
Miller and Johnsen’s conversation ebbed and flowed like one between two friends, albeit two extremely well-spoken and articulate friends. Johnsen interspersed her own prompts with questions from the audience, who asked Miller how she created such vibrant characters.
In classical tradition Circe is best known as a witch who turns men into pigs. According to the story, she traps Odysseus on her island, where she keeps him as her lover for years, preventing him from returning home to his family in Ithaca.
In Miller’s novel, Circe is the nymph daughter of the powerful sun god Apollo, and is continuously subjugated by her family of more powerful gods, who Miller at one point described as “sociopathic narcissists.” As Circe comes to terms with her own power she is outcast by her family to the island of Aeaea, where she eventually hones her powers and creates agency for herself in the brutal world of selfish gods. After Odysseus lands on her island, they develop a loving relationship, but he struggles with his duties off the island.
Miller read from the passage where Circe explains to Odysseus why she turns men into pigs, and gave insight into what the passage meant.
Although the subject matter delved at times into serious discussions of power dynamics, there were still light moments. Miller had the audience laughing several times, including when she bragged about getting to write a “Minotaur C-section scene.”
Near the end of the talk, and after some prompting by Johnsen about whether writing Circe made her feel “witchy,” Miller opined that being a witch is merely a state of self-empowerment, or acting beyond society’s preconceived notions. She then assured everyone in the crowd, men and women alike, that we can all be witches.
Guest author Valerie Nikolas is a lifelong Chicagoan and a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to writing about health and science, Valerie enjoys reading, being active, and discovering new music and art in Chicago. Read more of her work on her website.