Monday, October 31st, 2011
Thank you to all of you who got in touch with favorite characters—it was such a treat to be on the receiving end of so much mythological enthusiasm! I decided to go with the very first reader suggestion I received, a character who also happens to be near and dear to my heart—that wise teacher of heroes, the centaur Chiron.
A quick caveat: by definition, myths have nearly endless variations. My aim is not to cover them all, simply to provide an introduction to a beloved story, and highlight the parts that I find most interesting. If you want something more exhaustive, there are many, many terrific resources for myths, both online and in print. My “Find Out More” page has a few ideas for getting started.
Chiron (also spelled Kheiron or Cheiron), was born under unusual circumstances. His father, the titan Kronos, was coupling with the nymph Philyra when Rhea, Kronos’ wife, suddenly appeared. Kronos turned himself into a stallion to escape her notice, and nine months later, Philyra gave birth to a half-horse baby, whom she reared (or abandoned, depending on the myth) on Mount Pelion.
Chiron grew up to be just, kind and wise in many arts, including medicine, gymnastics, prophecy, hunting and music. Because of this, he was much sought after as a tutor of heroes, and his charges eventually included Peleus, Jason, Aesclepius and, of course, Achilles.
Homer calls Chiron the “wisest and most just of all Centaurs.” Generally, Centaurs were known as being brutish, lustful and violent, eating their meat raw, living outside the bounds of civilization, and pillaging whenever they got the chance. In order to distinguish Chiron from his barbaric cousins, vase painters often depicted him as having a full man’s body with only two horse feet behind (see thumbnail below, courtesy of theoi.org, or click here for the larger image).
One of the most fascinating myths about Chiron involves Heracles and Prometheus. While visiting the centaur, Heracles accidentally pricked Chiron with one of his arrows poisoned with the blood of the Hydra. The poison’s virulence made the wound incurable, despite Chiron’s skill in healing, and the centaur was doomed to an eternity of agony. So Chiron went to Zeus and offered to give up his immortality in exchange for the freedom of Prometheus. The king of the gods agreed, Prometheus was freed, and Chiron’s soul was placed among the stars, where he became the constellation Sagittarius.
This story is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. I have always had a soft spot for Prometheus, the creator of humans who defied Zeus to bring them fire and other comforts. As punishment, Zeus chained him to the Caucasus mountains and sent eagles every day to rip out his liver, which, being immortal, grew back every night. It feels beautifully fitting to me that Chiron would choose to give up his life for him—the only other god who shows himself a consistent and selfless friend to mortals.
The story is also interesting because of Chiron’s ability to forfeit his immortality. As far as I know (and if you have other information, please share!), this is one of the only examples of a god dying in Greco-Roman mythology. The next closest example I can think of is Pollux giving up half of his immortality to his human brother Castor, so that they can live six months on earth together, and six months in the underworld. But more on them down the line!
A few last thoughts on Chiron. His name comes from the Greek “cheir” meaning hand, a reference to his skill at surgery (itself from the Greek “cheirurgos,” literally “hand-worker”). He was a popular figure in ancient literature, and also pops up in a number of modern works. John Updike’s “The Centaur” is based on the life of Chiron, and Chiron also features in Elizabeth Cook’s novel “Achilles.” He is a character in the Percy Jackson series, and I like to think that the Classics-loving J. K. Rowling was inspired by Chiron in her portrait of the wise centaurs (Firenze especially) in the “Harry Potter” series. He also plays an important role in my own novel, “The Song of Achilles.”
Want more? Click here to go to Chiron’s page on “theoi.org.”
Next week, we tackle Clytemnestra—scheming ax-murderer, or avenging matriarch?
Thursday, October 27th. I am now officially on Twitter! You can find me there @MillerMadeline.
Last week Ecco, my US publisher, threw an absolutely wonderful media lunch for The Song of Achilles. It was fantastic getting to meet everyone, and a great way to kick off my home-country launch. In honor of that, I wanted to include one of my first (and very lovely) US blog mentions, by Emily Crowe, a bookseller from the auspiciously-named Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA.
Finally, I am about to start a “Mythological Character of the Week” series, so if you have any particular favorites you’d like to see featured, please do head over to the “Contact me” page, and let me know!
My hometown paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran an article today reviewing the three translations of the Iliad that are out this fall, by Stephen Mitchell, Anthony Verity and Richard Lattimore (not new, but updated with new notes). I am very much enjoying reading and comparing them all, especially alongside another new Iliad-inspired piece, Alice Oswald’s poem, Memorial, which focuses on the deaths of ordinary soldiers in the Iliad. More detailed thoughts on all that soon!
In the meantime, Stephen Mitchell and I were both panelists recently on the BBC show “Nightwaves” discussing the resurgence of interest in the Iliad (our segment begins at the 22:22 mark). I am thrilled that the Iliad is getting so much attention!
Thursday, September 29th, 2011. The Guardian‘s Natalie Haynes reviewed The Song of Achilles. Here’s an excerpt:
“Miller spent 10 years writing this book, yet her smooth prose conceals the painstaking research she has clearly put into it. This is a deeply affecting version of the Achilles story: a fully three-dimensional man – a son, a father, husband and lover – now exists where a superhero previously stood and fought.”
For the full review, click here.
Sunday, October 2nd, 2011. I am home again after an absolutely terrific tour abroad, including a launch party hosted by the marvelous Clerkenwell Tales in London. It was such a treat to get to meet the owner, Peter Ho–it is truly a place “run by booklovers, for booklovers.”
After London, I headed off to South Africa, including a stop in Johannesburg, where I had a terrific dinner with some wonderful managers of Exclusive Books shops. Then on to Cape Town and the Open Book Festival, which was fabulous. So many great events and people, not to mention the gorgeous location. Also, I tasted my first paw-paw.
Reviews“A startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist... a book I could not put down.” Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto