Circe is a marvel of a book.
Madeline Miller’s debut novel, 2012’s The Song of Achilles, was a splendid side-story to The Iliad, told through the eyes of Achilles’ lover Patroclus. With that novel, Miller showcased both her exhaustive knowledge of Greek mythology as well as a deep understanding of the nature of desire. By taking on Homer’s famous epic, Miller showed audacious confidence, as attempting to remix one of literature’s best-known tales is considered near-blasphemy in some circles. Circe, Miller’s sophomore novel, is even more daring in that it offers a new look at Homer’s even more ubiquitous The Odyssey. Her daring pays off, as Circe is a monumental achievement, a novel that at works entirely on its own merits and as a worthy supplement to The Odyssey.
Circe tells the story of the witch who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs. Where The Song of Achilles mostly concerned itself with the humans and half-humans of Ancient Greece, Circe includes bountiful descriptions of Titans, Olympians, minor gods, nymphs, naiads, demi-gods and mortals. With these descriptions, Miller demonstrates that she is more than simply knowledgeable about Greek mythology; she has actually shaped classic myths and figures around a world of her own making. It’s a risky move to take such bold ownership of such a cornerstone of literary culture, yet she does so with ease, and Miller’s Ancient Greece feels both unique and familiar.
Circe, the daughter of the Titan Helios and the nymph Perse, spends her early years in her father’s palace and in that of her maternal grandfather, Oceanus. There she is exposed to the beauty and cruelty of the gods and their subjects. Her more beautiful siblings and even her mother mock her for her sharp looks and piercing voice, and though she lacks power, her quiet nature allows her to learn both company and, through an encounter with her imprisoned uncle, Prometheus, compassion. A chance encounter with a mortal fisherman, Glaucos, causes her to extend that compassion to humanity as well, though her compassion for Glaucos soon turns to obsession. She schemes to make him immortal and in doing so finds that she does, in fact, possess powers unique unto herself. Unfortunately, her scheming also leads to her being exiled to the abandoned island of Aiaia.
It is here that Circe becomes the witch that we encounter in The Odyssey, but Miller offers several twists to the scenario. It is not so different that it feels like a new take on the story, but rather different enough to make the reader see The Odyssey in an entirely new light. Circe’s motivations, which in The Odyssey initially appear cruel and fickle and later seem unnaturally obsequious, look entirely different in Miller’s telling even though the actions and circumstances themselves remain mostly the same.
While the primary draw here is Miller’s attentive expansion of Circe’s story, that expansion is supported by her command of language. Miller’s writing is often referred to as “poetic,” and it is. But it is poetic in terms of its rhythm and its roving, hungry, writerly eye. Her language isn’t flowery; instead, she describes Ancient Greece with precision and adherence to elemental observation. She describes both godly palaces and deserted islands in terms of what rocks and metals they are constructed from, the temperature of their air and water and what flora and fauna populate the area. Her descriptions leap off the page as if they are being read by a fire, the words snapping alongside the burning, cracking wood.
Circe is a marvel of a book. Its chapters unfold like myths themselves, each offering new and often revelatory looks at stories many readers will already know. The surprises lie not in the outcomes but in the delivery. As Circe traverses generations, she becomes more human, and as gods and mortals alike become more threatening to her, they feel even more relevant to our own times. Circe is attentive to the past, particularly to the great lineage from which its story sprung, but it is a novel completely of our times, with a powerful woman combatting dangerous men. It is an important read, and an elegant one, too. Yet it also pulses with suspense. It is a true achievement on many fronts, and in tandem with The Song of Achilles it raises high hopes that Miller will continue to build on—and, in some ways, better—our most beloved ancient texts.