When I was ‘learning to read’ at primary school (i.e. crawling my way through a reading scheme designed to put children off books for life) the light at the end of the tunnel was a series of books called Wide Range Readers, which contained ‘proper stories’ rather than a sequence of unrelated sentences about how much I loved (loathed) Dick and Dora. I think there were twelve of these books altogether and each one included at least one tale from the myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. This must be where I first encountered Circe, who I have to say did not impress herself on me anywhere near as much as Jason searching for the Golden Fleece or Theseus defeating the Minotaur. I suspect she cropped up only as an appendage to the story of Odysseus. I certainly remember something about his sailors being turned into pigs ; it’s the sort of detail that stays in your mind.
Madeline Miller’s most recent novel, Circe, redresses the balance. While Jason, the Minotaur and most especially Odysseus make their appearance, this first person narrative is centred solely around the nymph herself. Daughter of the titan, Helios, Circe finds herself caught in the middle of the continuing struggle between her father’s people and the Olympian gods. In a move to retain the delicate balance between the two sets of immortals, Circe is exiled to the island of Aiaia as punishment for having turned Scylla, her rival in love, into a truly hideous monster. However, in the process of achieving this Circe has discovered her vocation as pharmakis; the problem being, that then, as throughout history, a woman working with the produce of the natural world to create even the most harmless of remedies is labelled Witch. And this opens up Miller’s exploration of the story of Circe and the way in which she has been portrayed through the ages into a more far reaching feminist consideration of the way in which women thought the ages have been suppressed by men. The titans have always treated both wives and daughters as nothing more than toys available as and when for their sexual pleasure and Circe turns Odysseus’ sailors into pigs because she has reason to know how even human men will treat her if she doesn’t take steps to protect herself from their sexual appetites.
It would be wrong, however, to see this book as simply a feminist tract. Miller is, I think, much more concerned with the question of what it means to be human, or more particularly, what it means for Circe not to be, but rather to be cursed with the ‘gift’ of immortality. This isn’t something that has troubled her father, Helios, who believed the world’s natural order was to please him and who had never been able to imagine the world without himself in it, but Circe is both fascinated by the humans that she encounters and increasingly aware that her own eternal life condemns her to repeatedly lose those, such as the inventor, Daedalus, with whom she finds a commonality. This comes to a head when she bears Odysseus a son, Telegonus, and, as he sets out to find his father, fully realises the fragility of human existence. Perhaps ironically then, it is Odysseus’ son by Penelope, Telemachus, who finally brings about a resolution to her inner conflict and also offers her a way of escape from her island exile.
Initally, I found the novel rather slow, but once I was into it and, most particularly, once I had become attuned to the very clear music that dictates the patterns behind Miller’s writing, I had a hard time putting it down. I really enjoyed her earlier novel, The Song of Achilles, but this, I think, is the more thoughtful book and I am impatient to see what she offers us next.