Madeline Miller’s 2018 novel Circe comes from a long line of feminist retellings of myth and legend. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), a retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, is perhaps its most obvious antecedent, but we can look too to Angela Carter’s blood-drenched fairytales, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird and Mr. Fox – which play with “Snow White” and “Bluebeard”, respectively – even, stepping sideways genre-wise for a moment, Catherynne M. Valente’s searing Six-Gun Snow White. The themes Miller is playing with here – the limits placed on female power under patriarchy; the portrayal of the witch as an essentially feminist figure, transgressing oppressive social norms – are none of them new ones; nor are they arranged in any particularly unusual way. And yet Circe was one of my top ten novels of 2020.
The novel follows its eponymous heroine from a miserable childhood in the house of her father Helios, among amoral, power-drunk gods and chilly, vain nymphs whose only purpose is to be seduced, to the lonely isle of Aiaia, whence she is banished by Zeus for turning queen bee nymph Scylla into the snake-headed monster we’re familiar with from the Odyssey. Facing a long, lonely immortality in exile, and lacking the power of the greater gods, she turns to her pharmakos, her witchcraft, for purpose, solace and protection, carving out a space for herself that is free of their toxic influence and their tyranny. She creates, one might say, a room of her own.
Miller’s achievement in Circe is to bring a deep psychological interiority to characters who are classically very flat (because the writers of Greek epic are doing different things to modern novelists), while still retaining a sense of historical authenticity: these characters don’t, crucially, feel like twenty-first century people in Greek costumes. Instead, they’re deeply embedded in the textures and rhythms of ancient life, shaped by the wide oceans and the rocky isles of Greece. the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and craft. It’s interesting that the gods of Olympus don’t feel anywhere near as real: their power enables them to remain static and unchanging, inflicting their shallow wills on the world. It’s only those without that absolute power – mortals, but also the disinherited Circe and her rebellious siblings – who, forced to wrest survival from the world, are able to change with it, to learn and grow. It’s very satisfying seeing Circe do just that, maturing over centuries into someone who’s capable of loving, helping and having meaningful relationships with others.
I’m not usually a character reader – it’s ideas that tend to interest me – so it comes as a surprise to realise that her arc is the chief pleasure of the novel for me. Miller may not, strictly speaking, be doing anything very new or surprising here; but her points about patriarchal power aren’t any less relevant for being unoriginal, and what she does do she does very well. Circe is, quite simply, a well-crafted novel, doing what the novel as a form is uniquely suited to doing: a deep dive into a mind that is not our own, working out how to be in the world.