For our next Book Club meeting on Friday 29th July at 2.30pm, we will be chatting about Circe by Madeline Miller. Whether you’ve heard of the book before or it’s new to you, enjoy this preview by Carolyn O’Donnell who gives a flavour of what to expect…
Old tales can take on a shimmering new spin when told from a different perspective, and in Circe, a minor goddess of Greek myth becomes the focus of a story more famous than she is. Circe is usually best known as the witch of The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War, in which she plays a small if memorable role.
If you enjoy mythology, you’ll adore this novel, narrated by a usually side-lined sorceress now firmly at the centre of the action. If acquainted with the stories of Ancient Greece – or Rome – you’ll recognise many of the characters by either their Greek (or Latin) name, including Apollo, Hermes (Mercury) and Odysseus (Ulysses), hero of The Odyssey.
It’s Circe, for example, who tells Odysseus to fill his sailors’ ears with beeswax and lash him to the mast of his ship to survive the fatal song of the Sirens.
Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for fiction with her first novel, The Song of Achilles, and Circe’s author is thoroughly steeped in Latin and Greek thanks to her former vocation as a classics teacher.
Drawing on extensive knowledge of Antiquity, Miller brings the players and the power struggles of this era to vital life. The novel is vividly written and Miller’s prose can be highly evocative: “I tasted the sounds. They were soft, folding quietly as wings in the darkened air.” HBO made an eight-episode series of Circe in 2021, which is yet to be released.
A nymph daughter of the sun god Helios, Circe was banished to the island of Aiaia for turning a mean girl into a multi-headed, sailor-snacking monster called Scylla as even nymphs with divine lineage were supposed to be silent and seductive. Circe was the first witch of Western literature and then as now, it’s a term to disparage women getting a bit uppity in the patriarchal sphere.
While Odysseus sailed around taking lovers and siring children – including one with Circe – he had an intelligent spouse at home called Penelope, though her most celebrated attribute was that of chaste wife. At least, according to Homer. In The Odyssey Penelope’s actions serve to highlight the grandeur of the returning conqueror, though Circe gets to know Penelope better and realises she’s formidable in her own right.
Miller has stated that she wanted to “push back” against Homer, and presumably his traditional ideas for a woman’s lot. The writer chose Circe to be the central character in her retelling of The Odyssey, because Miller felt Circe was one of the poem’s few female characters to have any agency or independent life without incurring annihilating Titan or Olympian wrath.
Circe does anger the gods, just not enough to be completely obliterated. As punishment she spends hundreds of years in exile. Pre-dating Virginia Woolf’s need for space, once Circe has an island of one’s own, she grows emotionally, hones her skills and acknowledges her power. She also realises what a woman – even a goddess-witch woman – must do to survive in a world ruled by heartless divinities. A creature of some complexity, yes, Circe turns men into pigs, but she can be kind and helpful if you don’t rob or rape her.
During exile she meets Daedalus, the Leonardo da Vinci of the ancient world, and a mortal with god-like talents. More mythological figures drop in, including Medea, Jason (of the Golden Fleece) and goddesses such as Athena (Minerva). Circe also consults on controlling the man-bull beast known as the Minotaur.
The Odyssey is about a hero’s longing for home and Circe shifts the focus to a woman who finally gets to create her own home. Circe knows she has a place in literature, albeit as a humbled witch begging for mercy. In Circe, she’s the one being begged, and she likes it that way. Circe celebrates that in a woman’s life there can be many types of devotion, and one type may be to her work.
Circe is also a master of potions that bring forth a being’s true nature. By the end of the novel, the goddess-witch wants to cast this spell on herself, as it turns out that what she wants most is what mortals take for granted. Of all the transformative powers she encounters, the greatest is the very human capacity to love.
If you have read the book or plan to read it, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Join us on Friday 29th July at 2.30pm to share your thoughts and hear what opinions other members have about the book. Find out more and book your place here.
A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.