Circe: A Novel
- By Madeline Miller
- Little, Brown and Co.
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- April 6, 2018
An imaginative, intoxicating retelling of Homer's Iliad.
Madeline Miller, contemporary re-weaver of classical tales, is back. In Circe, the author reprises the successful formula she used in her first novel, The Song of Achilles, winner of the Orange Prize: taking a familiar portion of a Homeric epic, approaching it from a different point of view, and expanding and extending the story.
In that first novel, Miller told Achilles’ story in The Iliad from the point of view of his bereaved friend and lover, Patroclus. In her new book, the author’s springboard is The Odyssey — specifically, Odysseus’ enchanted sojourn on Circe’s island, and the narrator is the sorceress herself.
Once again, Miller fills in both backstory and sequel. Circe recounts a difficult childhood as a minor goddess and the least-favored child of Helios, God of the Sun, and the beautiful naiad Perse. She explains that it was youthful heartbreak and sibling jealousy which led her to employ her burgeoning magic powers to devastating effect and resulted in her being disowned, expelled from Olympus, and sentenced to perpetual solitary exile.
Later, Odysseus arrived, and (for good reason) she turned his men into swine. Circe explains all that, too, and then describes her ensuing, mutually enchanted relationship with Odysseus. Finally, and most surprisingly, she reveals the untold tale of what happened next, and what she chose after Odysseus departed for home in Ithaca.
Miller is a gifted storyteller. She knows her Homer, presenting the story with a different slant, but with language rich in classical metaphor and cadence. Her degrees are in Classics; she later studied dramaturgy. A former teacher of Greek and Latin, she now tutors these subjects, as well as Shakespeare. Her knowledge and passion for story and character come through on every page and surely contribute to a novel that begs to be read aloud.
This feminist Circe is complex and contradictory — witch and herbalist healer; a minor deity as lonely as she is self-sufficient; vulnerable and strong; tender and powerful.
The last chapter of Circe’s story, as told by Miller, begins where the original tale ended: when Odysseus departs for Ithaca and Penelope. His leave-taking initiates the most surprising section of Miller’s saga.
Is Circe a bit of a fractured fairytale? Perhaps, but for a taste of what may entice you to read on, here’s the beginning of the new ending. Circe is watching Odysseus sail for Ithaca and imagining future bards describing her:
“How would the songs frame the scene? The goddess on her lonely promontory, her lover dwindling in the distance. Her eyes wet but inscrutable, cast inward to private thoughts. Beasts gather at her hem. The lindens bloom. And at the last, just before he disappears over the horizon, she lifts one hand and touches it to her belly.”
Purists may take issue with the license Miller takes, but if you read for story and language, and love classics, myths, and fairytales, you will not be disappointed. Reading Circe reminded me of discovering the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths many years ago when my favorite elementary school teacher introduced it to my class as we prepared our production of Antigone (and that, as they say, is another story).
Now I like to give the D’Aulaires’ book to new parents as a baby gift and promise that the seeming myth of bedtime and story time will one day come true. Sure enough, on her website, Miller says that, as a child, she read the D’Aulaires’ book “to pieces.” She shares their gift of making classics fresh and vivid with contemporary language that honors the original.
My one quibble? I wish she had included a family tree of the Titans and Olympians — keeping divine genealogy straight is a brainteaser for the forgetful. So, brush up on your mythology before picking up Circe, and prepare for enchantment.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, was inspired by the detainment of Japanese diplomats at a Pennsylvania hotel in 1945. Her story collection, Contents Under Pressure, was nominated for the National Book Award.