Madeline Miller's 'Circe': A Review (Spoiler Alert) - by Valentino Gargano

Classics can still be bestsellers. Once again, Madeline Miller, author of the influential,

ground-breaking, and intriguing “The Song of Achilles” has shown us the way to make

classics sell, and, most significantly, to rejuvenate, reinterpret and actualise classical

mythology without trivialising or distorting it. With her “Circe” (now 3 years old), Miller

arguably surpasses her own previous accomplishments with the fascinating portrayal of

the Homeric witch that has for so long appealed to the fantasies of painters and writers.


As Miller herself disclosed one year ago in an interview to Channel 4, the idea of

deepening and giving shape to the character of Circe naturally springs from her reading of

Homer. In book 10 of the Odyssey, Odysseus and his companions finally reach the island

Aeaea during their wanderings following the war of Troy. Here Odysseus’ crew meet Circe,

daughter of Helios, the Sun-god, and the nymph Perse, who lives in a luxurious palace

replete with abundant food and strangely docile wild beasts. Homer calls Circe

“polypharmakos”, ‘of many drugs’: it is indeed through the magic wine that she offers to

Odysseus’ crew that she turns them into pigs. Only Odysseus can resist the enchantress’

powers thanks to moly, a magic herb that nullifies the effects of Circe’s magic. Homer then

goes on to tell the story of how Odysseus “tames” Circe and ends up even becoming her

lover and spending one year on Aeaea. But one question, as Miller herself explained in the

interview, still looms in the background and prompts us to rethink and doubt the accuracy

of the Homeric portrayal of the witch (if we can talk of any portrayal at all): why does Circe

turn men into pigs?

The Homeric silence gives Miller the substantial space for an analysis and an

expansion of a powerful female character whose portrayal, as usual in Homer, is only

trenchantly sketched - and subordinately to the actions and deeds of the male hero. As

Miller herself explains, in ‘The Song of Achilles’ she previously extrapolated two characters

from the realm of epic – namely, Patroclus and Achilles- and moulded their

characterisation to suit a rather lyric and dramatic genre. Her “Circe”, instead, does quite

the opposite: Miller saves an outcast from the Homeric episode that constitutes almost a

diversion from the epic core of the Odyssey and gives Circe the opportunity to have her

own epic, to take on the role of epic heroine and to speak, powerfully and freely, to a new

audience.


Miller is outstandingly meticulous in examining, arranging, and selecting material from a

variety of sources that span from the Odyssey to post-Homeric sources, such as Virgil’s

Aeneid and the adespota (not assigned to any known author) Telegony: an epic poem,

now lost, which recounted the deeds of Odysseus’ and Circe’s son, Telegonus. And yet

Miller successfully tailors her narrative to the necessities of a larger and undefined

audience which comprehends both the classicist and the nonspecialist. Miller, more

importantly, breathes life into a millennia-old tale to suit the needs of a generation of

millennials. Themes that are suppressed and unexplored in Homer and in ancient sources

that revolve around Circe are, in Miller’s brilliant novel, given new light and new

fascination, and one that encompasses the entire book, from Circe’s birth to, spoiler alert,

her final metamorphosis into a mortal woman.


The novel begins, however, in a sort of ring composition, with the divine birth of Circe and

her difficult upbringing in the palace of the Titans. Her father, Helios, is austere, cold,

distant, and deems her nothing but another irrelevant element of his divine progeny. Her

mother is a selfish and vain naiad who just wishes to keep away from what she deems an

ugly and powerless daughter with an unbearable shrieking voice (hence Circe’s name, literally ‘sparrow’). Circe’s sister, the infamous queen of Crete, Pasifae, is cruel and wicked. From the very first pages of the novel, Miller paints with tenderness and delicacy the portrait of a celestial immortal that yet is framed in her fragility and in the deafening silence of her loneliness. The indifference which the other Titans and Olympian gods demonstrate is alien to the character of Circe and is the very cause of Circe’s solitude. When a new

brother is born, Aeëtes, who first genuinely seems to love her sister, Circe feels not alone

for the first time in her life. But Aeëtes rapidly grows and learns the secrets of divine

indifference and cruelty. He is just the first of a list of divinities that enter Circe’s life to bring

delusion, disappointment, and to ultimately abandon her.


Paradoxically, it is when Circe is exiled to the island of Aeaea, as a punishment for turning

the nymph Skylla into a hideous monster, that Circe really realises her potential. Miller

here elaborates on the Homeric definition of the witch as ‘polypharmakos’ to expand on

Circe’s newly discovered magic abilities in handling portentous herbs and in mastering the

art of metamorphosis. We see Circe’s character swiftly developing and creating her own

universe, entirely out of her own power and will. She learns to find herself in a world where

it is an implicitly written law that gods and immortals should be cruel and indifferent to

anything but their royal majesty. Circe never really yields to this idea, and Miller acutely

and poignantly anticipates what is present in Circe’s heart but that she yet ignores:

she partakes in more of human nature than she may expect.


We see Circe always profoundly motivated by humane feelings of devotion, love,

compassion, forgiveness, and repentance. We follow her to Crete when she meets

Daedalus and assists her sister Pasiphae when she gives birth to the Minotaur, even

after her sister’s vexations and abuse. We witness her finding her independence and

autonomy in her love life when she receives Hermes as a lover yet learns not to trust him,

and eventually to reject him. Yet the climax of the book is arguably reached when Miller

discloses the reason behind Circe’s habit of turning sailors into pigs. In the most delicate

and upsetting chapter of the novel, Miller describes how Circe is raped by a group of

sailors who have reached her island and how the sound of Circe’s pigs screeching outside

her palace during the assault imprints a traumatic mark on Circe’s memory.


Circe is, by Miller’s own admission, a feminist novel, and one that effectively positions

itself in a fertile tradition of feminist classical scholarship. In the age of MeToo, Miller’s

contribution resounds loud and strong. Her revisitation of the Homeric myth does not

distort, but rather enriches our understanding of the classical world by shaping the story

through a female perspective. Homer gets questioned, as often in feminist classical

scholarship, yet here this questioning leaves the pages of academia to find a public space,

that of Miller’s novel, that has got the power to speak to a large and international audience.

The use of Homer that Miller offers is rich and sophisticated: Homeric formulae and both

thematic and stylistic peculiarities of the Odyssey are repeated with great accuracy (one

can think of the trenchant variant of the myth that has Ariadne casually killed by Artemis,

here included). Yet Homer is not only imitated, as aforementioned. He is emulated, and

Miller’s feminist revisionism is most successful in the portrait of Odysseus.


Stern and old-fashioned classicists may frown upon it. Yet revisiting the character of

Odysseus under a negative light is as old as the post-Homeric tradition and is so an

authoritative and established practice in literature that even Dante in his Inferno

contributed to such revisionism. Miller just inserts herself, swiftly and practically, in this

tradition, tailoring her representation of Odysseus to the delicacy and psychological

accuracy that is such a strong feature of this novel. The author’s brilliance resides in the

vivid and powerful portrayal of Telemachus: instead of becoming an alter Ulysses who

partakes in Odysseus’ patriarchal order and shuts up his mother Penelope, as in the

Odyssey, Telemachus’ character is investigated in his frailty. Abandoned by his father to

go to war when he was just a boy, Telemachus cannot live up to Odysseus' expectations

when he has come back to Ithaca. Nor does Odysseus live up to Telemachus’: instead of

a loving father who treasures his family and rejoices in being reunited with them after his

20-years absence, Odysseus has turned into a tyrannic Macbeth-like king who treats

Telemachus as another of his subjects. Miller cannot resist the temptation to follow the

tradition of the Telegony and chooses to write a happy ending for Telemachus and Circe

by making her destinies entwine and grow together under the aegis of love. Telemachus

will be the last of Circe’s lovers, and the one with whom, in the last pages of the novel,

Circe dreams of starting a family.


The stories of Medea, Ariadne, Pasiphae, Odysseus, Penelope, Telegonus, and

Telemachus – along with Circe, we all witness them; along with Circe, we partake of the

awareness of what makes mortals what they are. The humanity of those men and women

that Circe feels so close to her, we understand, is made up of all these character’s

sorrows, ecstasies, loves, disappointments, regrets, and obsessions. The fragility of

humanity, in the end, is what the readers, along with Circe, find most precious. With

Circe’s final metamorphosis into a mortal woman, we learn to treasure our own, mortal

fragility.

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