Circe Madeleine Miller, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978 1 4088 9007 3, 336pp
I have to say that this is not a book that I would normally have chosen to read but I was in Moruya Books and Julie pressed me to purchase it. She is nothing if not a good saleswoman so I succumbed to her blandishments and took it home with me. If it true that there exists a genre of fiction that we might call “women’s fiction” then I think that this book would fall into it. In making such a classification I am risking scorn from many quarters and I apologise if I offend anyone who thinks that fiction should be seen as independent of gender. Having said that, and in admitting that I am a male and possess all the advantages and disadvantages of that gender, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I read it in but a few days.
The narrative revolves around the gods of Greek mythology. Circe was one such though she was a minor deity. She was the daughter of Helios who was the personification of the sun. Her mother was Perse who was one of the three thousand daughters of the gods Oceanus and Tethys. You do not need to know any of this to read the book but clearly Madeleine Miller knows her Greek mythological stuff. Miller is a classicist and a teacher; she has taught Latin and Greek to high students for many years. I read an interview with her where she said that the classical world had captured her imagination from a early age: she cites Vergil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey as influences. Somewhat amusingly she also describes Richard Adams’ Watership Down as “The Iliad and Odyssey with rabbits.” There is no mention of Circe in The Aeneid but she gets some coverage in The Odyssey where Homer describes her as “the cunning Aegean goddess Circe.”
A quick refresh of The Odyseey turns up several references that are picked up by Miller. In Miller’s book a loom that Daedalus gives Circe features strongly. In The Odyssey we find Circe “at her loom, making a web so fine, so soft, and of such dazzling colours as no one but a goddess could weave.” It was after I read Miller’s book that I discovered that the first English translation by a woman of The Odyssey (by Emily Wilson) was only recently published in November 2017. That will be worth a read.
Miller’s website features an exuberant quote by Margaret George (an American historical novelist) in support of Circe: George says that the book “is as close as you will ever come to entering the world of mythology as a participant. Stunning, touching and unique.” This is perhaps slightly over the top but Miller does tell a good story. Circe is not popular in the halls of the gods: “Circe is dull as a rock,” says Helios. She turns to mortals for companionship and falls in love with one, Glaucos who is a fisherman. They become lovers. Circe uses her pharmaka (the ability to find and use magical herbs) to turn him into a god. But Glaucos tires of Circe and transfers his affections to Scylla. This does not go down well with Circe who exercises her sorcery on Scylla. For this, and other perceived failings, she is banished to a remote island called Aiaia. The second half of the book deals with the consequences of her affair with Odysseus who turns up on Aiaia with his ship and crew. The crew are turned into pigs. There’ s a lovely piece of dialogue where Odysseus asks Circe, why pigs? “Why not,” she replies. She does not really know but having gone through some of the benefits of pigs concludes that “the truth is, men make terrible pigs.” Odysseus, of course, has a wife at home and a son but that does not stop him from leaving Circe pregnant when he leaves the island. Perhaps Miller (or Circe) has a point about men and pigs. The rest of the book tells the story of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, her son Telemachus and Circe’s son Telegonus and Circe’s dealings with each. It is a light and engaging tale told in prose that is tight and fairly romps along.
I am quite sure that there are more copies at Moruya Books and you should make your way there immediately with cash in hand. This is a great book for a winter’s afternoon and a cup or two of tea. I have bought, and added to my heap, Madeline Miller’s first book The song of Achilles. This won the 2012 Orange Prize (now The Women’s Prize for Fiction). I am expecting a another ripping read.
Post script See also The Odyssey, Emily Wilson, W W Norton, 2017, ISBN 9 780 3930 8905 9, 592pp: if you have read other translations then this might be worth a look. A woman’s perspective as she translates will be different to a man’s. Wilson’s translation tells us of Circe that “what makes this enchantress particularly dangerous is that she is as beautiful as she is powerful.” Circe is typically not portrayed as beautiful by male translators. Samuel Butler’s translation of The Odyssey says she is “cunning.” Alexander Pope’s translation (which is the one I read long ago) describes Circe as “adamantine”. It is interesting that Miller’s Circe is perhaps anything but adamantine.