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Madeline Miller knows how to weave a story. More precisely, she knows how to pick well-worn strands from separate ancient Greek myths and twist them together into novels that feel simultaneously fresh and timeless. The pitted olives and the ship-battered wood that Miller conjures stimulate the senses, and her treatment of the interplay of gods and men resounds in wizened phrasing. In short, “Circe,” Miller’s second novel, published six years after her 2012 prize-winning debut, “The Song of Achilles,” does not disappoint.
Circe, the eponymous Titan divinity and the daughter of the son god Helios and of the Oceanid nymph Perse, is the protagonist of this intricate novel. Though divinities like Circe do not age like mortals, the novel traces Circe’s development from a misunderstood and outcast daughter to her solitary mastery of witchcraft on the island Aiaia, to her various brushes with love and loss, motherhood and friendship. Circe’s immortality enables her to encounter heroes whose stories are separated by thousands of years. Miller judiciously incorporates into Circe’s narrative the well-known myths of Prometheus, the Minotaur, Icarus and Daedalus, Medea, and Odysseus, which are typically depicted as discrete stories in seminal collections of Greek mythology like Edith Hamilton’s 1942 “Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes” and 1962 “D’Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths.” Circe’s story unfolds at a slower pace than Miller’s nail-biting ‘The Song of Achilles,” in part because Miller now has centuries of material to cover rather than the decades-long Trojan War. But it is Miller’s strong crafting of Circe herself that stitches these threads into a new epic, further revitalized with a feminine perspective.
Perhaps best known for her turning-men-into-pigs cameo in Homer’s “Odyssey,” Circe in Miller’s hands becomes less divine and more human, an evolution that is central to the novel. Exiled on Aiaia by Helios, Miller’s Circe still transforms the brutish men who stumble across her island into swine. But Miller offers Circe’s refreshing perspective, contemporizing the stakes of the encounter and imbuing Circe’s side of the equation with more gravitas and power. Even after Circe’s hearty welcome, the men who ostensibly seek shelter attempt to assault her when they realize she has no relatives, friends, or guards to protect her. Circe, though, is no doormat, and Miller’s writing crackles with her power. “It was my favorite moment, seeing them frown and try to understand why I wasn’t afraid,” Circe’s narrative voice explains, “In their bodies I could feel my herbs like strings waiting to be plucked. I savored their confusion, their dawning fear. Then I plucked them.” In an early stage of her exile, Circe experiments with her sorcery and is quite vicious and vindictive toward the men who assume she is powerless. “Circe” transfigures the canonized tale from one about men—and later about the wily Odysseus and his comrades—into one well-rounded episode in Circe’s bildungsroman-of-sorts.
At its core, “Circe” is a case study in how to storytell for modern-day readers, and not for ancient Greek listeners. The novel’s page-bound format, however, does not thwart its capacity to preserve and play into the performative, community-building aspects of oral tradition that carried its source material across thousands of miles over thousands of years. Rather, Miller’s magically exacting language—somehow both economical and luxurious in its use of verbs, nouns, and especially the hyphenated adjectives that Miller sprinkles with care—simulates the best of ancient prose and poetry. In particular, the novel’s frequent musings on the gods and mortals, and their mishaps and morals, model the effortlessness of Miller’s storytelling. “[G]ods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips,” Miller writes. “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 alters. It leaves only ash behind.” Ichor, nectar, and ash; each noun evokes a vivid material world that seems light years away from the 21st Century. Yet Miller makes each word drip with honeyed brightness or looming destruction, a balance of beauty and danger that transcends time and place.
It is that very tension between divinity and mortality that grounds Circe’s endless and sometimes repetitive lifetimes. The pattern of her life on Aiaia, tending her herbs and waiting for something more, does make the novel drag a bit, its plot twists notwithstanding. This pacing makes sense, though, in contrast with the ticking clock that governs the lifeblood of several choice humans and demigods whom Circe grows to care for and ultimately watches wither and die. Unlike the Titan and Olympian gods and goddesses who occupy their eternities by staging petty quarrels among mortals, Circe feels the real pain that accompanies the loss of a human life. “[I]n a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth,” she thinks, grappling with the words to describe what one mortal means to her. In “Circe,” Miller links together these “rare moments” to illuminate how Greek mythology can continue to provide mortals (and perhaps even goddesses) with the space to reflect on the wonders of being alive.
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