When Madeline Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, more than one critic was surprised. The Los Angeles Times called her “the dark horse in the race.” A review in The Guardian carried the headline, “Miller’s tale divides opinion.” Philip Womack at The Telegraph wrote the book’s win “represents a triumph of glitzy story-telling over literary depth.”

It wasn’t that critics didn’t enjoy the book, but that Miller’s writing didn’t fit the script. She didn’t write like the other literary heavyweights on the shortlist such as Anne Enright or Ann Patchett. The Song of Achilles was fast-paced. The whole book could be read in a few hours. The insinuation was that easy reading and literary fiction were meant to be a league apart.

But the simplicity of Miller’s writing is deceptive. Alongside teaching Greek and Latin to high school students in high school, Miller wrote Achilles over the period of a decade. She became as successful as she did in engaging hundreds of thousands of readers because she skilfully distils twisted archaic myths and imperfect gods and heroes into believable narratives whose protagonists we can be persuaded to care about. No foreknowledge of the myths is needed to read Miller’s novels. If Achilles introduced her as a voice that could cut through millennia of myths to deliver a convincing interpretation of an outdated and often confusing story, Circe establishes her as a writer who will influence our understanding of Greek myths for years to come.

Madeline Miller | Image credit: Biswarup Ganguly / CC BY 3.0
Madeline Miller | Image credit: Biswarup Ganguly / CC BY 3.0

Familiar figures, unfamiliar relationships

Some of Circe’s characters might be familiar to the reader such as Prometheus who empowered mortals with the gift of fire, Hermes, who carried messages and prophecies between gods, and Odysseus, who spent ten years trying to return to his kingdom in Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War. Some of the gods, nymphs and heroes will be new to those without a serious interest in Greek mythology. But whether the faces are familiar or not, the relationships between the characters, the dynamics of divine families, and the inherent complexity within the characters themselves will surprise one.

The volatile, self-involved gods of Greek mythology are a fascinating departure from the gods of common religions. Where an ordinary god may offer benevolence and guidance, a Greek god will act only to please and protect his or herself. Miller explains, “There had only been Titans once, at the dawning of the world.” But Zeus, son of the Titan Kronos, overthrew his father in a great war that shed the blood of many gods. He imprisoned the Titans who defied him and stripped the remaining of their powers except his two most powerful allies who had determined the fate of the war in his favour – Helios and Oceanos.

The stories about Helios, god of the sun who rode a chariot carrying daylight across the globe, caution, “However gold he shines, do not forget his fire.” It is advice his family survives by. He has four children by a daughter of Oceanos, the Titan whose rivers provide the whole world’s freshwater. Circe is the first of these children, and as she says at the beginning of her story, “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” The four children were mistaken for lesser gods for hundreds of years. Because gods do not believe anyone else to be capable of equal power, Circe and her siblings escaped notice for a long time.

They grow up without a sense or fear of time in the “halls made of polished obsidian” that are Helios’s home when night falls. The black stone descends into darkness when their father is away, and they spend their days unsupervised. Their only duty is to appear humble before Helios. They do not learn “the mortal trick of counting” days because “divine days fall like water from a cataract.” Their lives ebb on till matches or kingdoms are found for all but Circe who by divine standards is considered plain and judged stupid for her innocence.

Desperate to gain the love of a mortal man she has chanced upon, Circe tries to find ways to make him immortal and god-like. Helios has explained to her that the difference between mortals and gods is that, “You may say they are shaped like us, but only as the worm is shaped like the whale.” Following an instinct from deep within her, she begins to carefully track down places on earth where the gods’ blood fell in the war and where it is rumoured rare flowers and herbs grow. A series of unforeseen events leads her to confess her ability to draw supernatural potions from these flowers to Helios, who is forced to confront that his four children can practice a hereto unheard-of power – witch or pharmakis.

Banished to earth

As Circe remarks, “What could make a god afraid? A power greater than their own.” Zeus demands that Circe be banished, and Helios obliges. Circe opens with the map of an island called Aiaia, surrounded on two sides by turbulent waters and sea monsters called Scylla and Charybdis who swallow whole the sailors who cross their path. One lone harbour offers human access to the island. It is here that Helios drops Circe in his chariot and rides off without a word and without once looking back. It is on Aiaia over the next several hundred years that Circe’s story truly begins.

Circe’s story of isolation becomes one about family. The few hundred years she spends with her parents and siblings only begin to make sense to her on the island as re-examining her relationships and sees for the first time that what she mistook for love was pity or manipulation. She forges a life away from them in a way she wouldn’t have around them. She learns and masters the art of pharmaka as she explores the foliage on the island of Aiaia, developing a talent for transforming objects into new forms, including men who she turns into pigs.

Some well-known paintings from the nineteenth-century show Circe ruling over her feral domain of lions, wolves and pigs in Aiaia such as Wright Barker’s Circe and Briton Riviere’s Circe And Her Swine. Through the ages, she receives both divine and mortal visitors, both relatives and strangers on her island. Circe’s role in Greek myths is of someone who crosses paths with and alters the life of many of the central characters, from exile. I won’t name them for fear of spoiling surprises in the book. Miller has written the most compelling story about a character who sits at the edge of the mythological world and boasts some of the most profound influence.

Circe, Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury.