I’ve seen the thumbnail for this book on a lot of Goodreads forums over the last couple of years and decided to pick it up as a bit of a contrast to my recent reading material. I’ve looked forward to Madeline Miller’s take on Circe, the marginal character in the epic The Odyssey, as I have little to no wider knowledge of Circe’s origins or impact in Greek mythology. Like most children, I went through a pretty obsessive phase with the fables of the Greeks, which were vivid and often centred around a moral quandary or heroic quest featuring exotic islands, the brutality of the gods, their many affairs, their many illegitimate children and, of course, brutal monsters. Scorned women with snakes for hair, men flying too close to the sun and three-headed dogs filled a lot of my imagination as a kid and I (guiltily) may have repeated the tales to some of my relatives when they were far too young to be hearing about grisly creatures of that nature, but oh well…
It’s been a long time since I’ve read any feminist retellings of historical/mythological tales: people of my generation may remember having to study The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy for GCSE English, a short collection of poems from the perspectives of the women behind the men in folklore, fairy tales, religious texts and historical artifacts. I initially disliked it, but after deconstructing it to shreds and considering the intricacies of Duffy’s writing, I actually ended up changing my mind entirely. Duffy gave us empowered, embittered and complex portrayals of characters such as Samson’s Delilah, Red Riding Hood and Demeter. These iconographic figures were often overshadowed by their husbands or fathers or, well, any other man within their vicinity. Duffy gave these women voices and real, authentic representations of women’s experiences of love, motherhood and rage.
Miller humanises Circe in the same way, unpicking her very complicated relationship with family and the abandonment she faces from various lovers. She introduces Circe as the “ugly duckling” daughter of a nymph and the sun god/titan Helios. She is depicted as an unsightly abhorration in comparison to her siblings due to her hawk-like yellow eyes and is silenced often as her voice draws comparison to that of a screeching owl. She possesses no notable powers and is unremarkable in basically every way, destined to be married off to a mortal when her time comes, though she is frequently reminded that nobody will have her. After a series of serendipitous defiances, including the transformation of beautiful nymph Scylla into a six-headed gorgon, Circe comes to realise that she may possess the very real powers of pharmaka (witchcraft that relies upon the earth’s natural resources for divination) that have only been rumoured among the titans. This level of ability could rival that of the Olympian gods, potentially even stirring another rift between Zeus’ forces and the titans.
As a punishment for her defiances, Circe is exiled by her father on her an island with only the overgrown wilderness of foliage and a few wild pigs as her companions. Here she creates a life for herself, taking the time to understand her craft and hidden power. Visited occasionally by the meddling Hermes, also her casual lover, Circe begins to finesse her abilities and build a sense of self. Along this journey, she deals with unwanted visitors upon the island, hushed talks of her destiny as part of a great prophecy, the sting of rejection from her family and the woes of isolation.
Miller’s worldbuilding is phenomenal: you get lost in the way she weaves her storytelling prowess from page one. Obviously, she has a girthy bank of material to draw from, however, she really does put her own signature stamp on her version of Circe by also adding some of her own fictional embellishments (for instance, the introduction of Trigon, the large leviathan-esque deep sea god). Miller is immersive and impressive with her seamless transitions through periods of Circe’s life, taking readers on a series of micro-narratives that involve characters such as Prometheus, Glaucos, Hermes and Daedalus.
What I especially appreciated was how Miller creates a brilliantly sympathetic portrayal of a character who has been disgraced and ridiculed in previous iterations. This is no easy feat, but Miller makes it clear that though Circe may be otherworldly, her emotions and experiences are accessible to readers and not at all alien. Readers can relate to the angst of Circe feeling as though she doesn’t belong or isn’t wanted. Naturally, the scope for this level of depth was missing in The Odyssey due to the sheer volume of adventures and characters within the narrative, so it’s awesome to have a modern-day envisioning of Circe that modern-day readers can resonate with.
Also, Miller’s complicated presentation of Circe is groundbreaking because this is an important deviation from the original narrative of The Odyssey. There we heard the more reductionist tales of the puritan Madonna-like characters such as Penelope, waiting faithfully and patiently for her husband Odysseus despite the pressure to take a new suitor, and the whore-like characters like Circe, who essentially took people hostage for the selfish purposes of fulfilling desire and avoiding loneliness. Both authorship and readership have developed substantially in the times since The Odyssey was born unto the world. Gone is the expectation that characters should simply fulfill the binary of evil vs good: we are instead more interested in the multi-faceted characterisation of women who are capable of encompassing both “good” and “bad” traits, and can’t be easily boxed into one description. Miller’s Circe is a living, breathing emblem of a well-written woman, as real and complicated as any you might pass on the street. This is her greatest victory with the book and it was utterly stunning to read.
I can’t wait to read Song of Achilles!