Reading Circe, by Madeline Miller, is probably the closest I’ve come to studying the myths of ancient Greece. It’s clearly a well researched novel – Miller herself is a Latin and Greek teacher – though I’m not qualified to comment on how true it hews to the original myths and legends surrounding the character. For those who are not familiar, Circe is the daughter of the Sun God Helios, though far less powerful. She intersects with a few well known Greek myths; the ones that impact the novel most directly are the myth of the Minotaur, and The Odyssey by Homer.
(She is the one who turns sailors into pigs).
Circe is born seemingly already straddling the line between the mortal world and the divine. She clearly has gifts of divinity – her immunity to death, of course, being chief among them. However, she lacks any actual divine power, and as the narrative tracks her childhood and loss of innocence, she grows in her empathy for the plight of mortals, a seed first planted in her wonder at Prometheus, the titan who gave mortals fire. All the arcane power she gains through the novel she does by mimicking mortals, with consistent, back breaking hard work – an effort that eventually earns her the epithet “witch.”
The line-by-line craft that went into this novel is incredible, and it particularly shines in audio form. Iambs and poetic meter jumps out naturally from the narration as easily as breathing, and its almost infuriating how simply Miller slips into poetic meter in the middle of her prose — all without losing the tight narrative voice. Indeed, such care enhances the characterization, as it helps build the strong aesthetic sense our heroine nurtures throughout the tale, one that compliments the mythology she inhabits.
This novel is deeply feminist in viewpoint, and many might therefore consider this a re-imagining, though I myself do not in anything save the most technical sense. Miller does, in fact, push beyond what the myths have given her, but she presents the classical Greek world as it was, deep misogyny and all. It is her feminism that allows the clearest picture of the ancient world to shine through – and if her heroine emerges far more sympathetic to a modern audience than the ancient one who feared the wily witch from Homer’s Odyssey, that is a shift to be applauded.
Pick this one up.