„I would like to hear Achilles sing“

Histo-Couch: What gave you the idea to study european ancient dead languages?

Madeline Miller: I first fell in love with ancient Greece as a little girl, when my mother would read me the Greek myths at bedtime. I especially adored the stories of the Trojan War, and Achilles, and remember sitting mesmerized through her version of the Iliad. As soon as my school offered Latin, I jumped at the chance, and discovered that, aside from the wonderful myths and history, I also loved learning about linguistic roots. It seemed like a magic trick to me, seeing how the Latin word „canis“ became the modern English „canine.“ So, I kept up my studies, and added Greek as well. Once I began reading things like the Iliad and Aeneid in the original languages, I knew there was no going back. I was hooked for life!

Histo-Couch: So what is so fascinating about these stories? Is it the heroes, ob maybe the mixture of gods and men?

Madeline Miller: I think that part of what I love about these stories is how they have grown along with me. When I was a child, I loved the adventures--magical creatures, gods and heroes. But when I got older, I began to appreciate Homer’s astute observations about human nature. His characters are full of realistic quirks and faults, and they could just as easily be alive today as three thousand years ago. Achilles is the Iliad’s hero, but he is terribly flawed, afflicted by intense rage and stubborn pride. I love Homer’s depiction of his conflict with Agamemnon: of course these two difficult men would drive each other crazy.
Also amazing is the fact that every time I read the Iliad I find something new in it: a telling detail of character I hadn’t noticed, a beautiful simile that takes me by surprise. Homer’s world is so rich it feels bottomless--you can never be bored!

Histo-Couch: Why did you choose Achilles as hero for your first novel, and why do you tell the story from the view of Patroclus?

Madeline Miller: I have always found Achilles’ story moving, since I was a little girl. I loved his vitality and honesty, as well as the tragedy of his story: he goes to war knowing that he will never return home again. All that he has left to live for is his reputation, and in the Iliad, fame is the only thing that seems to matter to him at all--until Patroclus dies. His rage and grief at his loss of his beloved companion completely eclipses everything else, even his own self-preservation. That fascinated me, and made me wonder: who was this Patroclus? And why did he mean so much to Achilles? I wrote the book as a way of answering those questions.

Histo-Couch: It doesn’t seem to be clear that the cousins Achilles and Patroclus had an homosexual relationship. They were at the same age, normally these relations consisted of an older and a younger man. Why did you decide this way?

Madeline Miller: The idea that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers is actually quite an old one. Homer never says so, but many ancient authors, including Plato and Aeschylus, assumed a romantic relationship between the ancient pair. For me, the depth of Achilles’ grief, combined with how he grieves (weeping over Patroclus’ body, embracing it, refusing to let it go), spoke strongly in favor of both a spiritual and sensual connection.
The cultural pairing of an older man with a younger was a tradition that sprang mostly out of 5th century Athens, after the time of the Trojan War and Homer, so it wasn’t something that really resonated with me for this story. In the Iliad, despite Achilles’ power and skill, the two men treat each other as equals, and I chose to make them the same age to reflect that.

Histo-Couch: Achilles´ has many characteristics. He seems to be good looking, with many muscles and hero-like, but also arrogant, as he doesn´t practice, for they say (and he as well), that he will be the best warrior of his time. And he knows that. How would you describe him? Maybe looking like Brad Pitt in the Wolfgang Petersen Movie?

Madeline Miller: When I imagine Achilles I don’t see Brad Pitt (though, as I’ve been learning, a lot of people do!). I actually started working on the novel about four years before the movie Troy came out, which I’m grateful for--I feel like I had already established the physicality of the characters in my mind, and so wasn’t influenced by picturing Sean Bean as Odysseus, or Brad Pitt as Achilles.

We know a few things about how Achilles looked from the mythology: he had blond hair, and was considered the most beautiful of all the Greeks at Troy. He wasn’t particularly noted for his size (as Ajax was), but he was incredibly fast („swift-footed Achilles,“ the Iliad calls him). This leads me to imagine him as muscular but in a lean as opposed to bulging way.

As for Achilles’ personality, he is, as you said, known for his pride and stubbornness. One quality I appreciate in him is his honesty. He tells us in book IX of the Iliad that: „I hate like the gates of death a man who says one thing and hides another in his heart.“ It is this very honesty that gets him into so much trouble with Agamemnon--he can’t help but tell the great king what he really thinks of him, instead of trying to be more diplomatic. I also appreciate Achilles’ skill with music. We see him playing the lyre and singing beautifully in the Iliad. And finally, it is always first and foremost in my mind how very young Achilles is. The myths don’t give exact ages, but he is certainly still a teenager when he goes to war.

Histo-Couch: What would you talk about with him, if you had the chance to meet him?

Madeline Miller: I would have to brush up on my spoken ancient Greek first! But after that, I would want to hear the story of his life, in his own words. And, I’d like to hear him sing.

Histo-Couch: The most mysterious figure in your novel is Thetis, Achilles´ mother and herself a nymph, so a god. He often talks to her, and she doesn´t like Patroclus. Is she kind of a villain?

Madeline Miller: I would call her an antagonist, as opposed to a villain. What she wants for her son is in direct opposition to what Patroclus wants. He and Thetis are locked in a struggle over their vision of Achilles: is he the sweet boy raised on Mount Pelion? Or is he a fearsome and merciless warrior of destiny? And, of course, she is an absolutely terrifying figure, as only the gods can be, single-minded and unyielding, with absolutely no sympathy for human suffering or pain. But she also has her own pain: her son is the only thing she cares about. Once he is dead, she will be without him for the rest of eternity.

Histo-Couch: How is it to write about gods and half-gods and centaurs and all the mystic figures? In this story they are real and not mystic.

Madeline Miller: Gods and fantastical creatures are a crucial element of Greek mythology, which was something I wanted to honor and keep in the story. In writing characters like Thetis (a sea-nymph) and Chiron (a centaur), I tried to take my cue from the ancient stories themselves, where they are simply and seamlessly part of the narrative. Thetis was particularly fun to write--I wanted to create a being who had the form of a person, but was profoundly alien and terrifying. I kept in mind the myth of Zeus revealing himself to the mortal Semele and burning her to a crisp. It wanted it to be hard for a human to look at a god.

Histo-Couch: How can you remain all the greek names in mind? Or do you have a list to keep he right name to the right party?

Madeline Miller: I did not have a list, though sometimes I had to look a few names up! For instance, until I wrote about it, I didn’t know the name of the boy that Patroclus killed, since it is only mentioned in a few sources. I was lucky that I had read the Iliad enough times that most of the characters I was writing about had had time to stick in my head.

Histo-Couch: Did you travel to Troy for research?

Madeline Miller: I had been to the Turkish coast when I was younger, though not to Troy specifically, so I had some idea of how I wanted the landscape to look. I had also spent a summer in Greece on an archaeological dig and traveling, which was really important to being able to visualize the places Achilles and Patroclus lived. But my goal actually wasn’t so much to recreate the Troy that archaeologists have found--instead, I wanted to write about Homer’s Troy, which exists mostly in the poet’s imagination. But I did take a trip to Troy afterwards as a reward to myself for selling the book. And it was amazing!

Histo-Couch: So was it like how you had it in your imagination?

Madeline Miller: My mother had been to Troy the year before, and had warned me that there wasn’t much left of it, so I didn’t go expecting a lot. I think my favorite part was standing on the remains of one of the famous old towers, the highest point of the excavation, and looking out towards the sea. It was just amazing to realize that I was standing where Priam and Andromache stood (if they were real), looking out over the battlefield. It didn’t even matter that not much else was left--my imagination did the rest.

Histo-Couch: What kind of novel is your book? Is it a historical novel, or a myth? Fantasy? Some kind of mixture?

Madeline Miller: A good question! When I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking about categories, but now I think I would call it „mythological fiction“-- which to me means that it is like historical fiction, but instead of using the details of the historical past as my guide, I used myths instead. My setting wasn’t the „real“ Mycenaean Greece, but rather Mycenaean Greece as imagined by Homer.

Histo-Couch: What is the thing on the front cover of the book? Is it some kind of a shield?

Madeline Miller: It is a breastplate, I believe. I have been very fortunate to have wonderful designers for both of my covers. This one was created by the terrific David Mann at Bloomsbury.

Histo-Couch: What about Achilles´ heel? Why did you change the story on a term that can be found in any medical dictionary?

Madeline Miller: One of the interesting things about the story of Achilles and his heel is that it is really a late addition to the mythology surrounding Achilles. In fact, there is no reference to it in either the Iliad or the Odyssey--in those poems, Achilles isn’t actually invulnerable, he is just extraordinarily skilled at war. The story of the heel, where his mother Thetis dips him in the river Styx to try to make him immortal, came afterwards. I wanted to stay as much as possible in Homer’s world, and I also found the story of the heel a bit too illogical for the realism of the world I was trying to create (strange to say when there are gods involved, but true). So I decided to leave it out.

Histo-Couch: There are many novels about ancient Rome, but just few about ancient Greece. Can you imagine why?

Madeline Miller: I am new to the field of historical fiction, but in my experience I’ve found the numbers of novels about Greece and Rome fairly well-balanced. There has been a huge boom in historical novels about the ancient world in general recently. It seems like every month there is a new novel about Sparta (a big favorite in America), or Alexander, or the Trojan War. I think that in our confusing modern times there is something comforting about turning to the past, both for inspiration and education And there seems to be a particular excitement about Homer recently, with David Malouf’s novel about Priam and Achilles, „Ransom“, and Zachary Mason’s „The Lost Books of the Odyssey.“ There are also three new translations of the Iliad currently out. So, if Rome started out ahead, I think Greece is catching up fast!

Histo-Couch: In Germany there are not so many books abaout ancient Greece. Here and there an Alexander, but no Sparta or the philosophers or the mystics. But there are many books about Rome, crime novels and so on. So here in Germany there are lots of more Rome novels than about Greece.

Madeline Miller: That is fascinating about there being a lot more books in Germany about Rome than Greece. I had no idea! (As you could see from my response). I wonder why that is.

Histo-Couch: Can you tell us something about your next plans?

Madeline Miller: I would love to keep writing in Homer’s world. It is an incredibly rich and poetic place, with lots of fascinating characters. In particular, I find myself drawn to the story of the Odyssey, and the witch Circe. I’m just at the beginning stages of exploring all that, so I don’t want to say too much more!

Interview: Carsten Jaehner