I recently read and loved The Song of Achilles, and couldn’t really understand why I had waited so long to read a book that was so obviously designed to appeal to my reading temperament. Ancient Greek mythology, historical fiction, women’s issues and award winning book all packed into one delightful package.
I was determined not to make the same mistake with Madeline Miller’s second book, Circe.
Eight years in the making, for the early fans of The Song of Achilles, Circe would have definitely been worth the wait. I discovered a rich, engrossing, fabulous ride into the Ancient Greek world of gods, goddesses, nymphs and legends all told from the perspective of the daughter of the sun god Helios and the ocean nymph, Perse.
Circe, the nymph of potions and herbs, has long fascinated me thanks to a visually stunning painting by J. W. Waterhouse that I spotted in one of my early visits to the Art Gallery of NSW gift shop. A print of Circe Invidiosa has been hanging on my wall ever since.
I love the colour of the liquid in the bowl as it flows into the sea (that I now know was used to turn the beautiful naiad, Scylla into an ugly, deadly monster) and I love the look of incredible intent and purpose on Circe’s face. This is a woman who will not be crossed or deterred from her course. Beauty and power, good and bad reside in her actions. I’ve always wanted to know what she was thinking about at this moment.
Miller gives me options to ponder.
I moved straight-backed, as if a great brimming bowl rested in my hands. The dark liquid rippled as I walked, always at the point of overflow, yet never flowing.
|Circe Invidiosa (1892) – J. W. Waterhouse
Telling the well-known and much loved story of Odyssey’s travels via a feminist lens is not new. Pat Barker went there recently with The Silence of the Girls and Margaret Atwood has also been there with The Penelopiad, which, like Penelope herself, is still waiting patiently on my TBR. (I’m sure there are more examples, but I’m too tired to search them out tonight).
I enjoy these modern interpretations of ancient stories. A lot.
Back in my twenties I dabbled wit a few Marion Zimmer Bradley retellings – The Mists of Avalon and The Fall of Atlantis in particular. But don’t get my started on my Arthurian obsession!
The ancient myths and legends were guideposts for the people of the time to help them to explain the world they lived in, gave meaning to their lives, validated their experiences and entertained. Generally this world was a world of men.
Our lives now are far more equal, balanced and diverse. Acceptance and openness are the norms we have come to expect in our lives and in our literature. No longer is, humbling women the chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.
Miller has reclaimed the role of women in this world of men. They are not just put there to be the playthings of men. Their lives are not to be judged or explained by men alone.
With this retelling, Miller has turned a somewhat chest-thumping, male-ego excursion into adventure and boastful escapades (The Iliad) into a more human, more authentic and more possible version of events simply because it considers more than one perspective.
In these modern retellings women have active roles, they have agency over their life choices and they have their own opinions and ideas.
That is one thing gods and mortal share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.
Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect and age. It was their fate…the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.
Favourite Character: Circe, naturally.
Favourite or Forget: One of my best reads this year so far. It was gorgeous, epic and enchanting! I’m very disappointed that Circe did not win The Women’s Prize this year.
- Longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.
5/20 Books of