"Circe" Review and Advice from Madeline Miller
Photo by me
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus/and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians."
Circe, witch of Aiaia, remembered often only as the callous witch who turned Odysseus' men into pigs; an obstacle on a long journey filled with other obstacles. There are few stories about Circe, even outside of The Odyssey, and this book seeks and succeeds to remedy this in the most memorable way possible. Madeline Miller credits the begged question, "but why was she turning men into pigs in the first place?" as her basis for the exploration and creation of Circe's unique character. Circe, while truthfully named a retelling, would be much better described as an Olympian dive, with The Odyssey serving merely as the jumping point.
"witch (n.): a woman with power that society can't control."
Circe is the daughter of the Titan god of the sun, Helios. She grows up in unfriendly, hidden halls on an unnamed Greek shore, confused by the callous and cruel nature of her blood siblings and the surrounding gods. A bubble of unprocessed, repressed emotion, god-like passion, curiosity, and rage, resentful of her divinity and inability to find her fit anywhere, mortal or otherwise, Circe accidentally stumbles upon her aptitude for witchcraft. She is deemed a dangerous, unruly witch, and banished to her own island, where she spends the next thousand years encountering famous Greek names and building her craft.
“Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not.”
Anyone who knows my reading taste knows that I'm a fool for old magic and otherworldly narratives. With it being a fairly lengthy singular narrative, it has all of the potential to be a bit slow or boring at times, and yet, it never is. Circe is an incredibly tangible character, personified and given so much depth that the reader feels as though they have truly traveled with her, spoken to her, and heard her speak. This is the goal of so many fiction novels, but few really succeed to this extent. The excitement of rediscovering old legends in a new light is unparalleled, and the underlying sorcery and magic is as much an added layer as it is the beating heart of the novel.
Reading this was made all the better by having seen Madeline Miller speak at an Indianapolis Public Library event beforehand. (Side note: their adult summer reading program is full of wonderful, free resources. Libraries are a blessed thing.) Despite adoring Song of Achilles, both for the story-telling and for the writing style, a major influence for my own, I'd put off reading her newest book for quite a while. My only excuse was that, "I have too many things to read and don't need a brand new book", but truthfully, I flit from one book to the next unplanned anyhow. I learned, on finishing Circe, that I should be much more attentive to my whims when it comes to things that I enjoy.
Among other things, Miller talked about the modern art of retellings. The Illiad and The Odyssey, she says, are full of detail and yet full of silences as well, spaces she feels she can fill with her stories, something she excels at beyond belief. Miller at once stays true to the classical, long-lived tales, while giving tangible voice to the stories lost in those of the patriarchal heroes. Despite their longevity in culture, Miller proves with Circe that there are still stories that well deserve to be told by someone who can give them the life they have long awaited.