Madeline Miller, a native of Boston, MA, is an author whose work I really dig. At the age of forty and deeply educated in the Classics, Ms. Miller has already written and published two fabulous, well-thought-out novels, which I highly recommend, particularly if you like Greek myths: THE SONG OF ACHILLES and CIRCE, published in 2012 and 2018 respectively.
For my birthday last month, a friend and colleague gave me a new copy of CIRCE, which I then read voraciously. The lone femme fatale witch and goddess figure has always been an archetype I’ve deeply resonated with since childhood. CIRCE delivered such a character portrayal and her story beautifully and hauntingly. At long last, a compelling reason behind why Circe turned Odysseus’ men into pigs is put forth.
I appreciated Miller’s crisp prose and very human portrayal of deities from the ancient Greek pantheon. The deep loneliness of Circe and her courageous acts to learn from and better tolerate this often existential state made for a touching narrative, told in first person. Additionally, Circe’s evolution into her own power and acceptance of the human condition becomes a perfect metaphor for a successful, complete development of not only a woman’s personality, but, ultimately, a human’s.
A daughter of the sun god Helios and nymph Perse, Circe grows up feeling different, even alien, from her family and peers. Her eventual exile by a scornful Helios onto the island of Aiaia comes with both relief and initial sadness for the heroine and “lesser” goddess. It is there that she gradually embraces her fate, tying up her skirt, walking about barefoot, and getting her hands dirty as she works the land. In so doing, she learns her craft of sorcery from out of herbs, other plants, and communing with animals, particularly lions, wolves, and pigs. Her shape-shifting abilities upon other beings become a means of protection, first for just herself but then for some others as well who enter her life on Aiaia.
Madeline Miller’s gift of drawing the intimate and immediate out of such ancient material of myths and legends is impressive and moving. For example, Circe’s relationship with Odysseus comes alive with emotion through dialogue and poetic, yet succinct, descriptions. It’s as if Ms. Miller fills in details only hinted at within sweeping passages from THE ODYSSEY and other Classic works, such as the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. This retelling is informed by modern discourses, such as feminism, yet keeps to the overall integrity of the old source stories. Every once in a while in literature and art, an ancient story or set of deific images is brought forth into a newer age so that the original beauty of it feels once again vibrant, alive, fully accessible for the reader or viewer. CIRCE fits such an occurrence, and that’s what makes this novel truly great.