For anyone who is curious about the ancient classics, but reluctant to give them a go, Circe is the perfect introduction. However, it is equally appealing as a stand-alone story of transformation, love and loneliness.
Based on Homer’s Odyssey, Madeline Miller’s novel is the story of the witch Circe, who lives alone on the island of Aiaia after being banished from the home of her father, the god of the sun, Helios. There, Circe hones her skills in witchcraft, which she uses for protection, including turning unwanted visitors into pigs.
The world in which Circe lives is presided over by the different gods, who are powerful, sometimes malevolent and often careless, determining the fortunes of lesser gods and mortals. It is a world that is intriguing, making sense of ancient beliefs in gods, monsters, and the underworld for modern readers.
The book comes after the success of Miller’s Orange Prize for Fiction-winning debut, The Song of Achilles, a story based on another ancient classic, the Iliad. In an interview for The Guardian Books podcast, Miller spoke about her early obsession with the ancient classics, which had inspired her to retell two of her favourites, with a modern voice and an alternative hero.
In the story, Circe is transformed many times, from a nymph to a witch to a mother, and more. While her setting is ancient, her concerns are relevant to those of our own time, from settling a screaming child to resisting power that is wielded carelessly. The language which she uses to unite the old and the modern is beautiful, to the degree that is almost musical – perhaps reflecting the lyricism of the ancient writings of Homer.
I thoroughly enjoyed both Miller’s storytelling, which places a character who only appeared briefly in the Odyssey, at the centre of the story, and the way she introduced ancient knowledge and understandings to those who had heard references to some of the world’s most famous figures in mythology, including Zeus, Athena, Medea, Icarus, the Minotaur, the Titans and Olympians, but had no real knowledge of who or what they were. It is hard not to be impressed by Miller’s grasp of ancient mythology, which has enabled her to write a whole new story, while remaining loyal to the legends that inspired it.
From here, I’m hoping to explore the ancient classics further, perhaps even having a go at Homer’s Odyssey, to read the source of Miller’s inspiration. Circe is that kind of book – it ignites an interest in the past and a desire to find out more, while satisfying the desire for a great story.