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    Human Stories: Madeline Miller on Her Novel Circe

    Madeline Miller, author of The New York Times bestselling novel “Circe” and this year’s recipient of the University’s Friends of the Weinberg Memorial Library Royden B. Davis Distinguished Author Award, discussed her work and the importance of classical retellings on Oct. 5 on campus. From left: Jeff Gingerich, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president for academic affairs; Miller; Kara Stone, Ph.D., chair, distinguished author committee; Mary McDonald, president, Friends of the Weinberg Memorial Library; and Charles Kratz, dean of the library and information fluency.
    October 17, 2019
    By: Alexis Ward ’20, student correspondent

    On Saturday, Oct. 5, the Friends of the Weinberg Memorial Library came together in celebration of their 25th anniversary and the presentation of the 16th Royden B. Davis, S.J., Distinguished Author Award. This year, The New York Times bestselling novelist and classicist Madeline Miller, author of “The Song of Achilles” and “Circe,” received the Distinguished Author Award.

                “The importance of a story that stays with you is what I think about when I read your novels,” said Charles Kratz, dean of the library and information fluency, in his opening remarks. “I’m sure everyone in this room has had one of those moments when they’ve finished a reading and said, ‘That story’s going to stay with me forever.’”

                For Miller, Greek mythology is the story that stayed with her forever. “I have libraries in my blood,” she said. When she was young, her librarian mother read her the Greek classics that would inspire her novels decades later. “They resonated with me because these stories felt like really human stories, and they were timeless stories.”

                The character she always returned to was Circe, an anomaly in classic myth. Born a minor goddess on the lowest totem pole of the divine hierarchy, she obtains incredible power on her own through witchcraft. In a world where women were relegated either to merely names or to villains, Circe was neither, disobeying the hierarchical order of the gods without being punished for it and simultaneously enacting vengeance and kindness on Odysseus, the weary war hero who haphazardly lands on her magical island.

                In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Odysseus spends ten years struggling to return home from the Trojan War and stays for a year on Circe’s island to rest. His narrative is, to Miller, another fundamentally human story: “‘The Odyssey’ is really about this exhausted war veteran who’s desperate to get home to his family, but once he gets home, it’s much harder to reenter his old life than he thought it would be.”

    These two complicated characters meet when Odysseus lands on Circe’s island, and Circe, in her most infamous episode, turns his men into pigs. “In eighth grade, when I was first reading the confrontation between Odysseus and Circe, I was on the edge of my seat,” Miller said. “I wanted to know what was going to happen next – he’s smart and complicated, she’s smart and complicated, so there’s going to be an exciting scene, right? But what actually happens is that Circe tries to turn him into a pig, it doesn’t work. He pulls his sword on her, and she screams and falls to her knees, begs him for mercy, and invites him into her bed all in one breath. And at the time, I was enraged. That’s all this interesting female character gets?”

                 Miller decided if the myth wouldn’t give Circe the story she deserved, she would have to write it herself.              

                “Homer calls her ‘the dread goddess who speaks like a human.’ And as a novelist, that implies for me that this is a character who is born a goddess, but has her foot in both worlds. Circe’s story is this very human story of someone who’s born into this family where they really don’t belong and who’s trying to get out – but what’s the cost of getting out? Is it possible to get out? And where are you going once you are out?”

                These questions are why humans retell these stories we’ve known the endings to for millennia, said Miller. Questions of war and questions of family are ideas that resonate with us in perpetuity, and we retell myths to find new answers to the age-old problems mortality brings.

    Alexis Ward ’20, Wysox, is an English, philosophy and Asian studies triple major and member of the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program and the undergraduate Honors Program at The University of Scranton.
    Alexis Ward ’20, Wysox, is an English, philosophy and Asian studies triple major and member of the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program and the undergraduate Honors Program at The University of Scranton.
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