Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 22, 2019

Circe, by Madeline Miller

Circe was another ‘catch-up-with-the-hype’ choice, but this one I didn’t regret bringing home from the library.  Like Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles (which won the Orange Prize, see my review) it’s undemanding, enjoyable ‘historical’ fiction, and appealing to anyone interested in Ancient Greek mythology.  Perfect for when I was bogged down with another book: not quite wanting to jettison it, but wanting something else for bedtime reading.

Circe is a chronologically coherent rewrite of the ancient stories of Circe, written from a feminist perspective.  The Circe of Homer and Ovid gets a bad press: the daughter of the god Helios and either the goddess Hecate or the nymph Perse, she is a violent, predatory female who uses her powers as a witch to wreak vengeance when she is thwarted.  Famously, she used her powers of transformation to create the monster Scylla, and to turn Odysseus’ men into pigs while she delayed his journey home.  In John Williamson Waterhouse’s painting at left, she is offering a cup laced with drugs to Odysseus, and you can see the docile pigs and the allusion to the tame lions that roamed her isolated island home. You can also see Eurylochus lurking in the background: he was the only one to suspect Circe’s treachery and was able to warn the wily Odysseus…

In Miller’s story, Circe gets a makeover.  She, alone among the gods, has a moral compass.  They are wilful, carelessly cruel, and unambiguously selfish.  For Circe to feel compassion as they do not, she cannot be a goddess, so in Miller’s version she is descended from the nymph Perse, not Hecate.  However, she retains the ‘gift’ of immortality and some magical powers, though she says they are an act of will, which can be learned by mere mortals too.

She angers her powerful father when her attraction to a mortal causes her to cast a dark spell, and so she ends up exiled on the island of Aiaia. Her visitors cause her nothing but trouble, but although she is an independent woman, she yearns for company and so she tolerates the visits of Hermes, messenger of the gods but more often merely indulging his love of gossip. In this novel, Circe is a psychologically credible character: she feels love and loss, she takes pride in her achievements and feels guilty when her acts of vengeance cause the deaths of innocent people.  When she becomes mother to the fractious Telegonus, she feels that fierce, overwhelming love that every parent knows.

Written in first person entirely from Circe’s point-of-view, the novel shows us a woman negotiating the patriarchy of the ancient world. She is an astute observer of men, even as a child:

Her [mother’s] hair was a warm brown, so lustrous it seemed lit from within.  She would have felt my father’s gaze hot as gusts from a bonfire.  I see her arrange her dress so it drapes just so over her shoulders.  I see her dab her fingers, glinting, in the water.  I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times.  My father always fell for them.  He believed the world’s natural order was to please him. (p.2)

But her mother was no fool when Helios came courting:

My mother knew he was coming.  Frail she was, but crafty, with a mind like a spike-toothed eel. She saw where the path to power lay for such as her, and it was not in bastards and riverbank tumbles.  When he stood before her, arrayed in his glory, she laughed. Lie with you?  Why should I?

My father, of course, might have taken what he wanted.  But Helios flattered himself that all women went eager to his bed, slave girls and divinities alike.  His altars smoked with the proof, offerings from big-bellied mothers and happy by-blows.

‘It is marriage,’ she said to him, ‘or nothing.  And if it is marriage, be sure: you may have what girls you like in the field, but you will bring none home, for only I will hold sway in your halls.’

Conditions, constrainment.  These were novelties to my father, and gods love nothing more than novelty.  (p.2)

(You can see the very effective cadence of Miller’s prose: frail she was and went eager to his bed… these rhythms convey a sense of an archaic language even though the words are all contemporary.  It’s very cleverly done.)

Men are challenged, and humbled — whether they know it or not — over and over again in this novel! But Circe has no admiration for her mother’s kind of female scheming.  Rather, she wryly wonders whether her mother values the gifts Helios brings her on the birth of her children, more for the amber beads or for the envy of her sisters when she wore them.  Circe has more admiration for her rival Penelope, because they share the same protective urge for their children.

Not every rewrite of a classic to give it a feminist twist is successful, but this one is.

Image credit: By John William Waterhouse – en:Image:Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus.jpg http://moontale.egloos.com/865206, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=426808

Author: Madeline Miller
Title: Circe
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2018, 336 pages
ISBN: 9781408890073
Source: Bayside Library

 


Responses

  1. Great review Lisa. I loved this book, bought it and have given it to friends to read.

    Like

    • Thanks, Meg – I bet your friends love sharing books with you!

      Like

  2. My daughter read this a couple of years ago, and loved it. I haven’t heard anyone who hasn’t enjoyed it, in fact. Rewrites of classical legends aren’t high priority for me, but if my reading group decided to do this, I wouldn’t be sorry!

    Like

    • Yes, I think you could frame interesting discussions around this one…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. New twists on classical myths are not my usual fare, but this one (along with Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls) sounds very well done.A friend is about to read it with her book group, so I’m intrigued to see how she gets on!

    Like

    • Hi Jacqui, I’ve got The Silence of the Girls on the TBR so I’m hoping that will be as good. I really Like Pat Barker’s so I expect it will be:)

      Like

  4. Great review. I also loved this book. Miller very skillful reimagined the ancient myths to fit perfectly into modern themes.

    I would like to read Song of Achilles as I was so impressed with this.

    Like

    • Thanks, Brian… have you read Ransom by David Malouf? He takes the story of Priam from The Iliad and traces his journey to retrieve his son’s body from Achilles. It’s beautiful, just beautiful.

      Like

  5. I’ve had this on my review tbr since its release! But recent reorganising activities have led to me eyeing it off and your review has spiked my interest further.

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  6. I’m not mad for Ancient Greek mythology but I do want to catch-up-with-the-hype so this one is on my list (may have to refer back to your succinct summary when the time comes!).

    Like

    • It’s satisfying reading, Kate, I think you’ll enjoy it:)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I listened to the audio of this and thoroughly enjoyed it. At some point I will go back and read her first book.

    Like

    • Hi Marg, great to hear from you:)
      I think you’ll really like The Song of Achilles too, she’s got the knack, this author!

      Like

  8. I have a copy to read. I just need to allocate the time ….

    Like

    • Yes, I have that problem too:)
      (It’s better than a whole lot of other problems to have!)

      Like

  9. […] retelling: Circe by Madeline […]

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  10. […] Circe by Madeline Miller, see my review […]

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