For her second novel, Madeline Miller returns to the fertile world of Greek mythology, and to another figure often overshadowed by a swaggering hero. This time her protagonist is Circe, sorceress and nymph, ruler of one of the many islands where Odysseus manages to get lost en route from Troy to Ithaca. Artists have always loved Circe: John William Waterhouse, in particular, seems to have been obsessed with this exotic enchantress. And yet Miller invites us to look beyond the magic, the sensuality and the unfortunate habit of turning people into pigs. As she did in The Song of Achilles, she gathers strands of myth from various sources and reveals little-known aspects to a familiar figure. Like Penelope, Miller is a master weaver; and yet there’s something at the heart of the book that doesn’t quite work.
I’ll be completely honest: before reading this novel, all I knew about Circe was what I’d learned from the Odyssey. On several occasions during the book, I found places where Miller seemed to be gleefully pulling together threads from every which way; but in every single case she was exonerated by my Dictionary of Greek Mythology, which showed that in fact she was sticking scrupulously to the myths themselves. Long before Circe was a sorceress on her deserted island, she was a nymph, daughter of the sun-god Helios and the Oceanid Perse. She comes from old, Titan stock, not the arriviste blood of Olympus, and her childhood is spent in her father’s subterranean halls, listening to the remaining Titians grumbling about their upstart conquerors. I have to admit that there was something of the high-school movie about Circe’s youth, as she is shunned by the more popular nymphs and taunted by her snide siblings Pasiphae and Perses.
Yes, Circe’s siblings are equally as famous as their sister. Pasiphae goes on to marry Minos of Crete and, fatally, to take too strong an interest in a beautiful bull. Perses is not, as I first assumed, the mythical ancestor of the Persians (that was apparently Perseus’ son Perses who, just to make matters really confusing, went on to have children by Circe’s mother Perse), but a formidable necromancer nonetheless. Circe’s younger brother Aeetes goes on to become king of Colchis, fathering Medea and ruling his kingdom with dark magic. And how does Circe fit into this dazzling brotherhood? Well… she doesn’t. While her siblings bring the world under their sway, poor Circe lingers at home without a conquest to her name, sneered at by vapid nymphs and patronised by her father. And then, for an impulsive crime of passion, she is suddenly dealt an even worse fate: exile.
But exile brings Circe to Aiaia, a quiet island in the middle of nowhere, where she gradually finds herself. She tames the wild beasts and learns to make use of the herbs that grow in lush profusion. Soon, she understands that she isn’t an embarrassment or a failure: she has magic of her own, oh yes, but unlike her brothers and sister she can’t use it on the world stage. She is trapped by Zeus’ command… but people can still come to her. First there are sailors; nymphs; divine visitors. And then, one day, another ship comes over the horizon, and Circe finds herself stepping onto the epic stage of world mythology.
I always enjoy stories that try to bring order to the tangle of myths left behind by the Greeks, but there were places where I thought this book didn’t quite achieve its ambitions. The problem is that Miller’s Circe is a rather pathetic character for much of the book. She’s stuck in one place; things happen to her; she’s trapped by men both mortal and divine; and she doesn’t have the pizzazz to do anything about it. Centuries pass (literally) while she does little but potter around the island. It feels as if drama only comes into the story when Circe gets a bit part in somebody else’s myth, and that’s unfortunate, because I had the sense that the story was usually going on somewhere else. Hermes obligingly drops by now and again and brings us up to date – the Minotaur’s dead! – Medea’s taking Jason’s second marriage badly! – but I couldn’t help wanting Circe herself to do something more interesting than whip up potions and (latterly) worry about her parenting skills. It might have been interesting if she’d actually been genuinely plain, as the nymphs call her, but it turns out that ‘plain’ to a nymph is ‘ravishingly beautiful’ to a human, so Circe doesn’t really undermine our expectations. I found the characterisation of Odysseus far more interesting: a man crueller, more fragile and less pleasant than I’d imagined him in the past.
I suspect I just find it hard to click with Miller, because I found her Patroclus rather irritating as well (mainly because he fluttered around and tidied the tent rather than fighting). What I must stress is that her knowledge of mythology is extraordinary: she has brought together elements of the Circe legend from far and wide, and done a very respectable job of making a logical story out of it, with a feminist slant. It isn’t her fault that it feels episodic rather than fluid. If you enjoyed The Song of Achilles, then you should certainly give this a go, and I look forward to hearing others’ views on it.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review