Since I was a big fan of Madeline Miller’s “Song of Achilles” I’ve been so eager to read her latest novel that reimagines the life of another Greek mythological figure. It did not disappoint. Circe’s most famous role in the myths (and my only prior knowledge of her) was as a magical goddess/sorceress who hosts Odysseus amidst The Odyssey and transforms some of his sailors into swine. Miller tells Circe’s story from her origins as the nymph daughter of the Titan sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse, a vain and negligent mother. She has a lonely early life as her appearance and voice are scorned by the immortals surrounding her. Her natural propensity for kindness and compassion is tempered by the darker cruelties and vanity of the gods as well as the shallowness and relentless ambition of humans. After being banished and experiencing so much heartache it’s understandable that Circe becomes hotly bitter, intensely lonely and decides to foster her own innate power to fight for what she wants and what she feels is right. In a sense, Miller does for Circe what Gregory Maguire did to the Wicked Witch of the West. Their stories take a figure who is scorned and branded a witch in popular culture and gives them back their humanity. “Circe” is also a finely crafted story that’s truly romantic and thrilling in its many adventures.
One important thing I’d stress is that if you aren’t already familiar with the many Greek myths Miller touches on throughout the novel, don’t look them up before you finish it. Otherwise, it will spoil the plot. At a few points I became curious about some details of a mythological figure I wasn’t aware of so I looked on Wikipedia to find out more and inadvertently spoiled the story for myself. Of course, plot isn’t the most important aspect of a novel and I know its somewhat silly to claim a tale that’s thousands of years old can be spoiled but take this caution if you want to remain in suspense about how a particular storyline will play out. It did feel at some points that there wasn’t a need for Miller to reference quite so many mythological stories. It was as if she tried to cram them all in or that Circe was bragging about having a connection to famous figures. But this is my only light criticism of this novel and the unique interpretations and relationships formed between all these stories is always compelling.
It’s so interesting how Miller writes about the way the gods and adventurous humans are very cognizant that their actions will lead to stories being told about them. It’s analogous to the way some people today only do certain things in order to post a picture or vlog about it on social media. Although the deities are immortal and can recall these stories, the humans need bards to capture their tales and relate them in a way that many future generations on will still be impressed by their accomplishments and dramatic clashes. Miller highlights how these bards and poets often have a misogynistic point of view: “Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” It’s so refreshing to see a range of women from these myths given a fuller complexity in both their heroism and villainy. Figures like her relentlessly cruel sister Pasiphae or the hot-tempered Madea are vividly realised. One thing I found particularly striking is the relationship that develops between Circe and Penelope as their encounter would typically be portrayed as one of rivalry, but instead what we get is a hard-won and sympathetic bond between them.
Something that makes Circe stand out as remarkable for her time is that she’s incredibly passionate and desires to have love in her life, but not if she’s just going to be seen as a commodity. She ominously notes “Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” Circe refuses to be used and she's prepared to fight. When men sexually attack her she uses her magic to defend herself. As a consequence she’s labelled as difficult and a witch. But Miller also shows a really heartrending psychological complexity to Circe’s reaction to being raped. For sailors she meets after she states “I might take him to my bed. It was not desire, not even its barest scrapings. It was a sort of rage, a knife I used upon myself. I did it to prove my skin was still my own. And did I like the answer I found?”
However, as Miller demonstrated in her previous novel, she can also beautifully capture the heights of romance. The text is infused with such a striking intensity of feeling when Circe finds love and the vulnerability this raises for a lonely individual: “in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth.” She is so good at capturing all the great adventure and drama of these classic tales but infusing them with emotions which are immediate and real. Unsurprisingly, when references are made to Achilles it feels like the author treats him with particular affection. But Circe is such a compelling figure in her own right that I wanted to spend even more time reading about the centuries she spends living in the paradise and prison that is her island of Aiaia.