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Novel set in ancient Greece (mythology and intrigue)

18th May 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller, novel set in ancient Greece, at the court of Helios and the mythological island of Aiaia,

Novel set in ancient Greece

Miller’s version of the story of Circe begins in the court of Helios, the sun god and Circe’s father.  It’s not an auspicious start – we are made fully aware of Circe’s inferior status. The writer’s choice of first person narrative allows us to feel Circe’s pain as she is brutally rejected by her family and the other nymphs. Her siblings mock her for her stupidity, her yellow eyes and her less than perfect beauty; her father describes her as “dull as a rock”.  Little wonder then, that Circe turns away from the gods and looks to mortals for friendship and love.

Soon, she meets Glaucos, a poor fisherman and, knowing that she will never be permitted to marry a mortal, resorts to “pharmaka”, the use of magical herbs to turn him into a god.  It backfires, however, as Glaucos is so besotted by his own beauty as a god that he turns from somewhat unprepossessing Circe in favour of Scylla, a beautiful and much-admired sea-nymph.  Circe, quite naturally, is infuriated by this turn of events and focuses her burgeoning witchcraft skills on Scylla, transforming her into a hideous sea monster. As punishment, poor Circe is banished to the island of Aiaia for eternity.

Miller then weaves the tales of many other mythological characters into her narrative, as Medea, Hermes, Daedalus, Odysseus and his wife Helen and son, Telemachus successively visit Circe on her island and recount their adventures elsewhere.  The reader, of course, knows these stories – there are no surprises here but Miller really fleshes out the bare bones of the well-known myths, bringing them to life in a very vivid manner.  These familiar characters become much more human in Miller’s hands, particularly Circe, whom the reader comes to know exceptionally well and who elicits all our sympathies.

Circe is wonderfully crafted, full of powerful hyperbolic descriptions which seem fitting to the topic.  Miller can produce quite gruesome detail in some passages; the detailed account of the process of the transformation of Odysseus’ sailors into pigs spares the reader nothing and the description of Scylla, as she battles with Circe, is quite enough to rival that of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf.

Miller’s reworking of the myths is emphatically feminist in its perspective and that, I think, is what makes Circe such a delight to read.  Circe is a nymph, sure, but she isn’t going to roll over and be some god’s plaything; she’s going to fight back with all the power she possesses. Circe works her way through many issues affecting contemporary women, such as finding a fulfilling career, balancing work and emotional attachments and even single motherhood.

All in all, Miller’s treatment gives us a heroine we really root for and it certainly keeps the reader turning the pages, not because we want to know how it all turns out, because we already know that, but to see how it feels for Circe.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

You can follow Madeline on Twitter, Facebook and via her website and you can of course buy her book through the TripFiction website

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