Circe – Madeline Miller

Book Review of Circe by Madeline Miller, published by Bloomsbury in 2018 (my copy 2019).

I asked myself, ‘Shall I discipline myself to write my own words this morning as planned, or write about hers?’ Having just finished this book (333 pages, it took me 3 days to read), I am full up with her voice, so hers take precedence and maybe, in doing that, I will free my own.

Circe is a tale of Everywoman, and you don’t hear that phrase very often.

Circe is not wrought of clever poetry, but is consummate storytelling. Being a Classics scholar, Madeline Miller will know the famous texts inside out: Homer’s Iliad (try Emily Wilson’s translation), and the two Electra, by Sophocles and Euripedes, for example. In this book, she has embodied the bard and found her way to the page with it. Born in America in 1978, her first book, The Song of Achilles, was the winner of the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2012, the same year it was published. Circe, too, won awards, The Red Tentacle being the most enticingly named, an American Library Association Alex Award. She describes herself as ‘a Latin and Greek teacher, director of Shakespeare plays’, and there is something good about knowing she was a tutor to high school students for so long. In her acknowledgements, she thanks them for engaging ‘passionately with these ancient stories’ and stopping to tell her about it.

The renowned stories spin, one after the other, familiar and yet not, because they are spun from the female point of view (as much, that is, as any woman can when she is born into a male world). Contrasting the eternal with the everyday, opposing everlasting life with mortality, and pitting struggle and war against the acceptance of ‘a simple mending of the world’ with herbs and carpentry, the author knits her threads ever quicker as the tale unwinds. This retelling does not have the sound of epic adventures told by a traveller, but an altogether more intimate, late-at-night uttering, by crone to virgin, in preparation for womanhood.

I felt I could hear this enduring, female voice speaking through Miller, either that or she is a very wise woman for her years. It seemed as if I was hearing what I have read about: that once a true writer has identified a character and started to ‘talk’ with its voice, it then continues to speak its truths and knowledge through her, a knowing which is deeper than her own. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about stories needing someone to tell them, that when they come to you, you must serve them, allow them to be told. That made sense when I read this book.

Miller throws every Greek God and Goddess that you have ever heard of, and more, into the mix, however, at root it revolves around Circe, daughter of Helios (the sun) who, of course, being male, is the one who we more usually worship. Witch, lover, daughter and mother, Circe cannot die or age and this is a magnificent device allowing Miller to entice us through the seven ages of woman one by one, slowly learning as she goes. Like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Circe gets another shot, and another, and …. well I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that her power is hard-won. Against all odds, she finds she can subvert this very mechanism because she has proved that she can live through everything an earthling’s life involves: birth, joy, disappointment, hurt, and grief, and can therefore finally face the ultimate challenge.

Recently, I have been submerged in loss (I lead workshops and have just written a book about it), so it was perhaps inevitable that those were the parts which affected me the most. I wept with recognition when Circe realised that she had to let go of her child. And be glad for him. Oh, my mother-heart broke again because I too longed for children, bore them, became completely immersed in them and then gave them to the world never to return. (And yes, that is a dramatic turn of phrase, but here is the magic of storytelling – it gives us a universal language with which to speak about the parts of humanity which are known by all, but so often unspoken.)

255px-Angelica Kauffmann, Circe enticing Odysseus
Circe enticing Odysseus by Angelica Kaufmann

I did resist, I will be honest. I didn’t want to read of Circe’s faults and mistakes, only of her spells, defiances and transformations (what woman would not want to find such a delicious way to deal with the men who rape her). I railed to my own daughter when I had finished the part with Odysseus, of how Circe listened to him, and pandered to him, and healed him, or tried to. Then again, I did know, who of us hasn’t tried that? But on I read. Why? Because I sensed that Circe was looking for a way to know and befriend herself, to throw off her inheritance. (As am I. As are we all?) And then it came:

‘I had been old and stern for so long, carved with regrets and years like a monolith. But that was only a shape I had been poured into. I did not have to keep it.’

We can choose, Circe said to me, we can let go of the roles we have been handed by our parents and ancestors. If we can face all the things that life throws at us and live, then we have the strength we need to choose to be ourselves.

Now am I ready to write?

Electra 1869_Frederic_Leighton_-_Electra_at_the_Tomb_of_Agamemnon
Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon by Frederick Leighton

You may also be interested in The Long Path to Wisdom – a collection of Tales from Burma by Jan-Philipp Sendker

How women are making the classics their own – Guardian article (accessed 27.1.20)