My experience with Greek mythology was first instilled by the movies of Ray Harryhausen. I loved Jason and the Argonauts as a kid and still do to this day. I may have read some condensed little bits of Greek myth while in middle school. It was not until I attended college that I was exposed to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And although I found Homer interesting, overall I thought The Odyssey was pretty dry. Maybe it was just the translation I read.
Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe is in no way dry or boring. It takes the old myths that we are familiar with and weaves them together into a narrative that is captivating, engaging, and fresh. Reading Circe is akin to sitting is a great hall after a meal while a poet recites tales of love, passion, loss and magic. The lights are dim and a crackling fire is burning on the hearth.
Circe is the daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun. A seemingly black sheep of the family she is exiled after showing kindness to Prometheus who was punished by Zeus for bringing fire to mortals. It is here that Circe’s story begins to take off. She is exiled to the island of Aiaia. On this island she hones her craft of herbcraft, referred to as pharmaka. To the gods it is considered witchcraft.
But even in exile she receives visitors. The first is Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He doesn’t care about her exile status and finds her fascinating. He brings her news of the outside world, of the wars of man and the petty squabbles between the gods.
We later get glimpses of Circe’s family. Her sister is Pasiphaë, wife if King Minos of Crete, and mother of the Minotaur. Her brother is Aeëtes, King of Colchis and keeper of the Golden Fleece. Through her eyes we get a unique perspective on the old myths that so many of us grew up on.
Circe is probably best remembered as the witch that Odysseus encounters and basically shacks up with for a year while returning from the Trojan Wars. And true to the spirit of her narrative, Miller presents a different perspective on the familiar tale as told by Homer.
Madeline Miller has managed to take the old and present it as something that is fresh, and told in a style that is engaging and hard to put down. The language flows smoothly and is almost conversational in ton. It’s perfect for the first person perspective that it is written in. Of special note, the audiobook, as narrated by Perdita Weeks, is exceptionally performed with nuanced storyteller like performance. It is Perdita Weeks’ first book narration and I hope to here more of her performances.
Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.
One of the underlying themes of the novel is the perception of women in the world of the Greek myths. Miller explores that not only with Circe, but with Medea and Penelope as well who had been given short shift in most other interpretations. Jason and Odysseus are not the heroes that they have often been portrayed as and the reason why Circe changes any men that come to her island to pigs is understandable and as far as I’m concerned better than some deserved.
What Miller has done is something special and hopefully can be taught alongside Homer and Ovid in Classics courses in the future. Despite it being a retelling of stories thousands of years old, its style is modern, and relevant. Highly Recommended.