Arts contributor, Miriam al Jamil, considers the woman behind the femme fatale myth, when reviewing Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe.
Miller’s Circe draws on a long tradition of myth to create a powerful telling that is both a unique personal story and a rendition of universal experience. Both gods and mortals are violent, cruel, spiteful and selfish. They reflect the characters we remember from Greek tales and Ovidian myths, and their irrational and destructive capabilities produce familiar miseries. Miller’s classical scholarship informs the narrative with a light and subtle touch. The book trusts us to know something of the history before we begin reading, but the characters stand outside any previous iteration we may know. We meet again one or two who made Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles, so compelling. This time, however, the gods who influenced human fate through fleeting visits and cynical manipulation are insistent protagonists at the heart of the narrative. The imaginative landscape of the novel lies somewhere between the present and a distant retelling of the compromise between the old Titans and the new regime on Mount Olympus. Miller shapes an ‘every woman’ of her subject and traces the development of self-knowledge through painful experience and endurance to counter the centuries of male story-telling that has largely determined our picture of Circe. Female power is potent and of a different order from versions of male dominance in Circe’s story. Miller reveals the misogyny, injustice and violence that underpins the tale in unflinching descriptive passages and piercing phrases. She maintains a framework of evocative timeless phraseology, but the voice of Circe is always accessible and her flaws and doubts feel like our own.
Helios is Circe’s unbending judgemental father and her mother Perse is an insecure egoist ‘with a mind like a spike-toothed eel’ (p.2), neither of whom are capable of tenderness. Circe is the transgressive outcast, the quiet watcher of the surreal world of the gods who discovers the depth of her magical powers, her knowledge of ‘pharmaka’ only after her exile. She is also the archetypal witch who functions through folklore and history as the feared female other, compelled to live beyond the bounds of civilised patriarchal society. Miller clearly relishes exploring the psychology of the pariah figure. The voice of Patroclus, the unheroic lover of Achilles, unfolded the story of her first book and in many ways his voice is reincarnated in that of Circe.
Miller deftly handles the issue of time, the centuries at the disposal of the gods and the all too short lives of mortals. Where they meet is the point at which their vulnerabilities and strengths are played out. We know that Odysseus will visit and stay. The experiences of war are written on his body and recounted to his patient listener, along with his proud memories of his young son. Circe is struck with poignant regret that her own father would recount no stories of her childhood. We know why Odysseus notices the beautiful loom which Daedalus had made for Circe. When Penelope arrives with her son Telemachus after Odysseus’s death the loom awaits her and the understanding between the two women is woven through this quintessential feminine object with its potent ability to unravel and restrain desire.
The stories of transformation recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses are ones of terror and rape normalised for us now by pedantic translations and elegant illustrative oil paintings. The crowds of nymphs in Miller’s story are sly and silly, but do not deserve their fate. She writes:
Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away’ (p.171)
The tension and animal lust of the marooned sailors to whom Circe has just offered her hospitality and the horror of brutal rape when they realise her vulnerability is told with shocking precision and restraint. We do not sympathise when they are transformed into pigs. Miller’s descriptive powers excel when applied to the extremes of female experience, particularly when Circe intervenes in her sister’s labour and the birth of the minotaur and when she suffers her own protracted and painful labour. We often feel we are observing the myths as they unfold from behind the stage wings rather than from the stalls. How often do we see the character of Minos’ wife in all its malevolent indifference, but are not invited to read of Minos’ fate? How often are Medea’s feverish plans and hopes for her life with Jason laid out, ‘She spoke each word as if it were a stone she built her future with’ (p.149), but we do not follow to see her future unfold? The fate of the ethereal Ariadne whose dancing enchants her aunt Circe is told as an afterthought by Hermes. She has died at the hands of Artemis, jealous of Dionysus’ desire for her. The deus ex machina appearances of Olympian gods, particularly Athena, run the risk of seeming contrived and unconvincing, and yet the violent intent behind this powerful goddess’s visit to Circe’s island allows the confrontation to feel fraught with emotion. The gods possess all human emotions but magnified and without limitation on their consequences or impact.
The book is an irresistible read. The range of human emotions which appear in it reflect the accretions of Greek myths and their patterns of human suffering and experience which Miller mines so effectively. The action unfolds in measured chapters and well-crafted interludes of dialogue and plot. The development of Circe’s inner life is balanced against the momentum of the story so that the promise of the conclusion and its new beginning seems inevitable and the only possible outcome. We wish Circe happiness and await Miller’s third book in the not too distant future.
Madeline Miller’s Circe (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018). Hardcover £10.99, Paperback £8. For more information about Circe or Madeline Miller, click here.