Madeline Miller has written some of my favorite novels of the past few years. Her books — the Orange Prize-winning Song of Achilles and the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Circe, soon to be an HBO series — are brilliant reimaginings of some of the most revered texts in the Western canon. Miller’s also a trained classicist, a Shakespeare director, a Latin teacher, and a Greek mythology obsessive.
This conversation on The Ezra Klein Show is about story and myth, about how our conceptions of godliness and human nature have changed, about the difficulty of translation, and the resonance of superheroes. We debate whether Achilles is the worst and agree that anyone who loves language should read Sandra Boynton. Miller reveals how to train yourself to write a beautiful sentence and how to steel yourself to tell the stories you burn to see but that the canon has wiped out. And we discuss what character from the Greek canon most resembles President Donald Trump.
This one was a tonic for me. Hopefully, it will be for you, too.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation, which we released this week on The Ezra Klein Show.
What makes The Odyssey worth reading today? Given that we can read all this current and modern literature, why should we read something written by Homer thousands of years ago?
What draws me to these stories is how incredibly fresh and vibrant they still feel. Technology has changed and culture has changed, but human beings and the things that we struggle with, the things that we love and fear, are all still with us.
When I look at The Odyssey, I see at one level the story of an exhausted war veteran who is desperate to get home to his family. And when he finally gets home to his family, he discovers that it’s much harder to re-enter his old life than he thought it would be. I think that’s a story that can echo down through the generations.
But I think we can even go a step further than that and say this is a story about longing for home. The Greek word for homecoming, which is what Odysseus yearns for through the whole Odyssey — is “nostos.” It’s where we get the English word “nostalgia.” It’s the pain you feel when you miss home. And I think we’ve all felt that way. We’ve all had those moments where we feel lost on the waves and surrounded by monsters and wishing for safe harbor. I just see so many universal human experiences. So it speaks down through the centuries.
Something I always find very affecting about the Odysseus story is that homecoming isn’t great. He spends all these years trying to get home, but in the end, it’s tragic anyway.
I think that speaks to the idea that you can spend all your life trying to achieve this one thing, and you think when you have it, you’ll be happy. But then the person you became to achieve it means you’re a person who can no longer be happy with it. You become so good at striving that even once you have achieved your goal, you can’t stop striving — and you just become more and more dissatisfied.
That bit of tragedy has always struck me as deeply wise.
Absolutely. Odysseus comes home, and I think he experiences both this sort of rush of being home but also alienation and dislocation. I always think about how sad it is that he misses his son’s entire childhood and young adulthood. When he leaves, his son is an infant and when he comes back, his son is 21. He’s missed out on all those years of his marriage. His mother has died while he was away. His father has gotten quite old and infirm.
So now, you’re back with the people you love, but can you connect with them? Odysseus was honored as “best of the Greeks,” the man who was the architect of the fall of Troy, who was honored and treated as this almost God on Earth. Then he was thrown from that into these years of suffering and then brought home again to a place completely different than the one he left. So I think it makes sense to me why he kind of loses it at the end.
This is going to be a bold generalization, but here it goes. When I think of the stories we are told in our culture, the modal story is “What if you finally got what you always wanted? Wouldn’t that be great?” And ancient Greek stories more like “What if you finally got what you always wanted, and what if it were terrible?”
There’s something really interesting in the difference between a culture that believes getting what we want will be the path to happiness and one that thinks it’s a lot more complicated than that.
One of the things about Greek mythology that’s so interesting is just how horrible the gods are. The gods are really not exemplars. You might aspire to have the kind of power that they have, but, for the most part, they aren’t virtuous. They’re petty and selfish. The fact that they have achieved this ideal situation of having all the power, eternal life, the ability to fulfill every desire has not made them good people. If anything, it has done the opposite.
That was something that I really wanted to explore in Circe: this idea of when you do get everything you want, when you do have absolutely everything, it doesn’t make you a good person, actually. It makes you kind of a terrible person.
Psychological studies have proved that that is, in fact, correct: When human beings are given ultimate privilege and ultimate power, unless they actively fight against it, [their] empathy immediately starts dropping. You start assuming that if I’m way up here, I must have gotten here because I deserve it. And therefore, everybody who’s down there, they don’t deserve it. So I’m better than they are, and therefore I can treat them terribly if I want to.
I think it’s so interesting that the human brain goes there and that the Greeks knew that, and they manifested that in their mythology.