Madeline Miller’s Circe has been on my radar since it came out, and The Song of Achilles even longer. There were many reviews on CBR last year of the book, most of them praising it if I remember correctly. But it took me a while to actually pick it up. Clearly I should have before, because I loved it!
The novel tells the story of the long life of the demi-god/witch Circe of ancient Greek mythology and her interactions with mortals and monsters and gods. The centrepiece of the story is her most well-known appearance, when Odysseus stays with her for a while on her island before continuing his long journey home to Ithaca. But Miller has woven so many other myths into this tale: from origin stories for the gods and monsters to mostly-lost post-Homeric epics. And it all makes a coherent narrative, which is no small feat.
The beginning when she is in the court of her father Helios is a little slow, but the prose is lush and lyrical and beautiful. Someone in my writing group said she couldn’t finish it because of all the metaphors. But metaphors are such a key part of the Homeric tradition that the story is largely based on! To me, they were a way of evoking the world in which Circe inhabited without being too obvious about it. Foolishly, I didn’t save any of the examples I loved, but a quick trawl of the Goodreads page brings out these examples to illustrate what I mean.
So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.
So I suppose a lyre would be a better word here than harp to really evoke ancient Greece, but I adore the sharp characterization that this metaphor evokes. I mean, how much better is this than to say Helios was a selfish ass? Of course we have enough evidence by this point to show, rather than tell, us what a terrible father he is. But this metaphor is glorious to me.
I had no right to claim him, I know it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.
Considering that the constellations we still know today are those of ancient Greece, heroes and monsters both, I find this not only fitting but also a beautiful way to consider human interaction.
Then I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.
In the ancient world, bows were Odysseus’ weapon (aside from his wit). To say this here, at a point which (if I remember correctly) is before she even meets Odysseus is not only a fantastic metaphor but a lovely foreshadowing.
This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.
Sure, we have plenty of examples of the gods being selfish. But this is such a perfect distillation of one of the key themes in Circe, the uncaring eternity of the gods versus the flawed meaning of the lives of mortals. And evokes such an air of the world of Homeric/mythic Greece, marred by ten-year wars and monsters that provide sport for the sons of gods–elements that are important to the narrative of Circe as well.
Overall, I’m sure it’s a matter of taste as to whether one thinks the prose is too flowery or metaphorical. But if you read for beautiful prose as much for plot, Circe comes highly recommended. I’ll definitely be checking out The Song of Achilles later.
As a final note, as a Classicist/Ancient Historian by training, I’m grateful to Miller for bringing this story to life and breathing such vibrancy into Classics. I’m delighted that it has found such success, and I hope it inspires more young people to study Classics (and not just because my Classicist lecturer husband needs a permanent job).