How do you make well known Greek mythology feel fresh and interesting?
Turns out having a different point of view does a lot to change the feel of a story and that’s what Madeline Miller does in her fantastic novel, Circe.
The story is that of the Odyssey, Odysseus’s long trip home after the trial that was the Trojan War. Usually told from his point of view, it takes you through his journey, of which the important part, to us, is his stopping on an island inhabited by a witch. This witch then, with seemingly no cause other than cruelty, turns his men into swine after drugging them.
Of course, the Odyssey was written by Homer and since then has been translated many times; almost exclusively by men.
Did the interpretation of Circe, the cruel witch of the island Aiaia, change with these translations? No, it didn’t. You could argue that the people re-writing the Odyssey were attempting to keep their interpretations as close to the original as possible, but that excuse fails to hold water when liberties are taken elsewhere in the story.
Circe is left alone; a picture of exotic danger and malice that Odysseus overcomes with his charm and manly wiles.
There’s a lot to unpack there, and Miller takes on the challenge of giving Circe more character than the mere cameo she has in the Odyssey.
But this isn’t a in your face feminist manifesto. It’s not written purely to drive home a list of point or to scream at you that female characters deserve more time and attention.
It’s a brilliant story, and Circe has a depth that outclasses much of what you will find in fantasy today.
Who is the Circe in the novel sharing her name? She’s a part-nymph, part-god being. Immortal and born as a disappointment to her family. She discovers however that she has powers that frighten even Zeus; those of witchcraft.
When she meets a human for the first time her life is altered forever. This meeting causes a rivalry to burgeon with another nymph, Scylla, and in Circe’s (relative) youth and filled with new found power, she transform Scylla into a monster.
An act that reverberates through the course of her life; an act that she will eventually have to come face to face with.
I hope that you are already getting a sense for the depth that Miller adds to Circe in her novel. She is not human, but through Miller’s skill you empathise with her all the same, and when she is threatened by Odysseus and his men, it isn’t malice that causes her to turn them into pigs; it’s self-defense.
And is that so far of a reach from the original source material? Wouldn’t a single person feel threatened by a group of men, returned from war, traumatised and armed?
It’s a simple twist of the source material and it isn’t the only one. Is it hard to imagine Odysseus’ famous intelligence also going hand in hand with arrogance and a huge ego? A presumption to ownership of everything he looks upon in his patriarchal world. I don’t think so, and neither does Miller, as she uses those close links to depressingly familiar personalities and traits to tear the reader out of their pre-conceptions regarding Odysseus.
But this isn’t Odysseus’ story. It’s Circe’s and Miller makes that clear as she packs her novel with encounters that serve to deepen her main character. Circe travels to Crete where she meets Daedalus; she is visited by Jason and Medea of the Golden Fleece fame, and more importantly, the novel spends time with her as she becomes who she is on the island that she is bound to.
It’s not a perfect novel. There are times when it feels contrived, where the subtly that is weaved throughout feels more like a loose thread, distracting and once you pull it, the more it unravels. Some of the secondary characters feel shallow, as if Miller threw everything she had into Circe and then had to share around what was left. Though don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here as a scathing indictment of Miller’s character work; the simple fact is that when compared to Circe, most characters will feel like shadows cast by fitful light.
And whilst the above remains true throughout the novel, so does Miller’s use of stunning prose and knowledge of classical mythology that, like a surgeon wields a scalpel, she uses to cut through the fat to get to the point.
If you’re a fan of mythology read this book. If you’re a fan of depthless character work read this book.
If you’re a fan of reading, well, you see where this is going.