MADELINE MILLER won the 2012 Orange Prize with The Song of Achilles, a reimagining of the relationship between the hero, Achilles, and his cousin, Patroclus, two central characters from the Iliad, as a love story.
Now she turns her attention to a less widely known character from the Homeric canon: Circe, the nymph from the Odyssey who lives alone on the island of Aiaia, and transforms Odysseus’s men into pigs when they are shipwrecked there.
In Homer’s epic, she merits only a few hundred lines. The author, a high-school teacher of Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare, and a keen Classicist, uses other ancient sources and the limpid springs of her imagination to create a multi-faceted feminist heroine who develops before our eyes as the book progresses.
Circe is born to Helios, the sun god, as the eldest child of the nymph Perse, who insisted on marriage rather than be one of a string of willing encounters.
You can see where the heroine’s dogged determination comes from. From the beginning, she is different. Mocked for her unlovely voice and yellow eyes and named Circe, “Hawk”, she has a strange capacity for compassion absent in the divinities who surround her, and risks divine wrath to bring Prometheus a drink during his punishment for bringing fire to mortals.
Prometheus’s act kindles her interest in humans. She falls in love with the fisherman Glaucus, and uses herbs to effect his transformation into a god. The plants can bring out only what is already there, and, when Glaucus rejects her for Scylla, Circe uses them to make her into the monster that was always lurking underneath.
© Nina SubinMadeline Miller, the author, best known for her award-winning novel The Song of Achilles
The lowly status of women in her father’s halls is made clear. “Nymphs, we were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feat laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” Even among the mortals: “Humbling women seems to be a chief pastime of poets as if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
Exile to an island full of plants and animals for using her strange gift of witchcraft is, therefore, a blessing in disguise. Magic requires work. We see Circe discover by trial and a great deal of error the properties of plants. Gods are not accustomed to hard work: they will weave or garden for diversion, but the real labour, the mixing of dyes, and sowing and weeding, can all be done by divine intervention. The discovery of the link between effort, achievement, and satisfaction is one more step in her personal growth.
Aiaia becomes a place where fathers send their wayward nymph daughters as a punishment. Circe takes a firm line with these silly creatures. She does not see or hear them unless they are summoned, and, if they cross that line, she makes it clear that she will transform them into worms and drop them in the bay. After one terrifying encounter, she takes to changing visiting sailors into pigs — not out of malice, but because, as a single woman on her own, this is her only means of defending herself against sexual assault.
The description is marvellous, as so many of Miller’s descriptions are: “Their backs bent, forcing them onto hands and knees, faces bloating like drowned corpses. They thrashed and the benches turned over, wine splattered the floor. Their screams broke into squeals. I am certain it hurt. I kept the leader for last, so that he could watch.”
She has a clear and cynical view of men, even the lovers whom she chooses. One wonders whether her view of males was shaped by an uncaring father whose approval she craved. Hermes is charming, self-centred, and unreliable. Odysseus, whose son, Telegonus, she does tolerate is not the all-wise hero of the epic poem, but someone who is “lawyer and bard and crossroads charlatan all at once”. Only with Daedalus, a fellow craftsman who understands what it is to work all day, is she completely happy; but they cannot be together.
Motherhood, with its cocktail of exhaustion and besotted devotion, brings a further dimension. Circe will do anything to protect her son — even defying the goddess Athena and going to the bottom of the ocean for the tail of the legendary Trygon. The ending, where our heroine redeems herself in her own eyes by ridding the world of Scylla, and can then allow herself to choose her own destiny, is deeply satisfying.
She reminded me in some ways strongly of Jane Eyre, who also found happiness in work that she was good at, after a neglected childhood, and became very much her own person in defiance of circumstances.
This novel would appeal to anyone who is fascinated by Greek mythology, or anyone who is intrigued about how people come to be the way they are.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
Circe by Madeline Miller is published by Bloomsbury at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-40889-004-2).
CIRCE — SOME QUESTIONS
- “How do they bear it?” How does Circe’s view of mortality change over the course of the novel? Is immortality a blessing or a curse?
- How does Circe press against two-dimensional views of womanhood over the novel?
- “Make him shiver, kill his wife, cripple his child, then you will hear from him.” Is it true that misery inspires faithfulness?
- How does the passage of time effect Circe in her relationships with mortals?
- “Why should I care what is in their hearts?” How is judgement doled out by characters such as Circe and Odysseus?
- In a world where gods are childlike and often petty, where (if at all) do you glimpse divinity?
- What different conceptions of faithfulness and steadfastness are there in the novel: for example, from Penelope, Circe, Odysseus, or Telemachus?
- What does the book suggest about motherhood and sacrifice? What kind of mother is Circe?
- “What I had thought of as adventure now seemed blood-soaked and ugly. Even Odysseus himself seemed changed.” How do characters change when their stories are retold to others? Why is this?
- “Do not try to take my regret from me.” Why is regret so important for Circe and other characters?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 January, we will print extra information about our next book, On Beauty by Zadie Smith. It is published by Penguin at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-141-01945-1.
Written in tribute to E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty takes inspiration from Forster, but in the context of New England in the early 2000s. Set in the fictional university town of Wellington, just outside Boston, the narrative centres on two multicultural families: the liberal, non-religious Belseys, and the more conservative, religious Kippses. It explores the interrelationships between the families and consequent tensions.
As in much of her writing, Smith uses humour to explore questions of race, gender, religion, and human relationships. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Born in north London in 1975, Zadie Smith read English at King’s College, Cambridge, and completed further study at Harvard University. Her multi-award-winning debut novel, White Teeth, was written while studying at Cambridge and published in 2000 to wide critical acclaim, making her an instant literary star. This has been followed by a further five novels, essays, and short fiction. Smith’s writing often focuses on English social, racial, and religious identities. Since 2010, she has been a tenured professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She is married to a fellow author, Nick Laird, and has two children.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
February: Humans by Matt Haig
March: Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson