If you’ve been paying any attention at The Starving Artist, then you know I am up to my neck in Nanowrimo, the National Novel Writing Month when writers write about 1700 words per day until they have a “novel.” As part of my project this year—a YA fantasy adventure trilogy, book one—I have immersed myself in music, movies, and books that vibe similar to what I am writing. One of the books I chose was Circe, partly because I already had it on the shelf with the intention to read it, but also because my project has elements of almost-mythology and a darkness that I assumed would be part of the story of Circe, the Witch of Aiaia.
Madeline Miller has been very popular the last several years for just two books: Circe and Song of Achilles. I read and reviewed Achilles about a year ago, and I could not put that sucker down, though I called it “book-candy-ish,” not quite my style, etc. It is a “gripping, sweep-you-off-your-feet experience” and a “homoerotic retelling of a Greek myth likewise steeped in legend and period history.” I mention these things because I was surprised while reading Circe that it feels like a very different book, almost like a different author (though she does throw in a reference with a wink now and again to Achilles and Patroclus). Sure, Circe, written later, is also a retelling of Greek mythology, but Miller wasn’t handed an already-famous classic epic (The Iliad for Achilles), but had to weave together many myths related (or sometimes only by time or place or other characters) to Circe and combine that with a bunch of made-up stuff to create an actual novel-worthy story from Circe’s antics. I think that is where the main difference in experience lay. (There were also differences that I found surprising: mainly that she removed more explicit sex descriptions, a la Twilight.)
I mean, though Miller messed with The Iliad, the drive of plot was still there, built in. Circe felt more like a series of anecdotes, probably because it is. I can just imagine Miller poring over her research, wondering who Circe was, how she became the Witch of Aiaia, what might have compelled her to do the things she’s credited with, and then piecing together what she had and drawing lines out to all these other mythical bits and pieces. There is a level on which Miller was very successful with this, but I wasn’t as impressed as I wanted to be. There is a complete character there with a backstory, motivation, consistency, etc., but quite frankly I didn’t want to spend all that much time with her. I got a little bored. And then you have these through-lines connecting these myths and Circe’s emotional past that explain (sometimes explain away) her deeds (including many bad deeds). The era of the villain, perhaps, is coming to an end, but I found myself not wanting to be all like “poor lady, she was raped and that’s why she murdered all those people,” or whatever. And then, on top of that, putting all those already-existing stories together worked but I found it a little clunky. Like where is this story going? It wasn’t as cohesive as one usually likes to see in a novel, especially one that is so popular (not an academic read).
If you like Circe, or think you might like Circe, I would like to point you to Till We Have Faces. It doesn’t weave together different myths, but it is a retelling of Cupid and Psyche with very similar themes and it is one of my favorite books of all time. It is excellent. And don’t let the authorship of C. S. Lewis keep you from reading it; it is nothing like his other stuff.
There is one thing that Miller did in Circe that I’m sure caused her headaches (on top of weaving together disparate myths, giving the character character, and creating an intelligible plot), and that is writing from the perspective of a goddess. Circe is the daughter of Helios (a Titan) and an ocean nymph, Perse. I suppose Miller gets out of it a little by making Circe not very powerful or even very beautiful (by the standards of the gods), but still Circe’s experience as very-long-lived and magical and not having our same needs, etc. was hurdle after hurdle for the writer writing her, and Miller must have had to think her way out of many situations where the gods are involved. How exactly would a god enter a room and what would they look like or feel like or sound like? How would time perception be affected by living hundreds or thousands of years? How would personality be changed by having all your physical needs met or not even exist? I was intrigued by all these questions, myself, as I read, and with many of the ways she answered them. I just thought she could have spent more time perfecting those answers? I’m probably asking too much. I mean, Miller spends years researching and dealing with material before she publishes a book. But something in Circe fell flat, for me, and I love reading mythology.
I admire the research and work, I enjoyed reading the book to an extent, but I found that the back cover copy promised a book that was not there: it was not as unified or as dramatic as “Circe must summon all her strength and chose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from or the mortals she has come to love.” The tension of that whole deal is just not there. In the end, the book feels like a more traditional myth-telling, where the real action and all the details are left up to the listener’s imagination. This is not how we like our novels, now, and I felt told much more than convinced.
I do think Miller has done something special here, though. The task of making ancient Greek myths into a cohesive story told from the perspective of a goddess and with modern flair is special, I think, at least done to this level. There is also a bit of feminism here, but it’s not done in a way that feels false to the original telling, just from a different perspective. The novel is not seamless, but taking a common character and giving her a voice was a great idea and Miller did an admirable job with it, overall. Maybe don’t have your expectations too high and you’ll have a better read.
“It was my first lesson. Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two” (p16).
“’It is not fair,’ I said. ‘It can not be.’ / ‘Those are two different things,’ my grandmother said’” (p45).
“It is law that guests must be fed before the host’s curiosity” (p171).
“’If I had known I would not have done the rite.’ / She nodded. ‘You and most others. Perhaps that is why suppliants may not be questioned’” (p175).
“All my hammering had only made her harder” (p180).
“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of the poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep” (p213).
“Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom” (p261).
“He could not imagine the scope of the gods, the mercilessness of seeing generations rise and fall around you” (p282).
“Yet a thousand men and women walk this world and live to be old. Some of them are even happy, mother. They do not just cling to safe harbors with desperate faces” (p282).
“It is youth’s gift not to feel its debts” (p285).
“Girls and boys would sigh over him, but all I saw were the thousand soft places of his body where his life might be ended. The bareness of his neck looked obscene in the firelight” (p288).
“I cannot bear this world another moment longer. / Then, child, make another” (p295).