Myth Made New: Madeline Miller’s CIRCE
By Tim Weed •
Like her debut, The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s Circe offers readers a fresh and defamiliarized retelling of classical Greek mythology. It’s a retelling informed by the author’s thorough knowledge of the subject and energized by its dialogue with contemporary feminism, but its virtues go further than that. In the process of breathing life into her mythological subject matter, Miller has created something that’s of great value to contemporary readers: a wise, courageous, and resonant novel, alive with vibrant sensory detail, that explores the buried truths of human existence.
The novel is full of scarcely believable things. Its protagonist is Circe, to begin with. Not the Game of Thrones character Cersei, as one of my friends suggested when I enthusiastically recommended the book to her, but the Circe, the island-dwelling witch-goddess from Homer, famous for having transformed Odysseus’ crewmen into pigs. And newly minted pigs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the novel’s mythological content. Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios. She comes to the aid of Prometheus; she goes to Crete to visit her sister Pasiphaë, who’s married to King Minos. She’s present for the birth of the Minotaur; turns a rival nymph into the monster Scylla; has love affairs with Daedalus, Odysseus, Telemachus, and the god Hermes.
Myths; legends; folktales. Even if we’re ready to grant that the polytheistic fantasies of a long-defunct culture far removed from our twenty-first century reality really are worth the attention of contemporary readers, how can we begin to suspend our disbelief?
Madeline Miller holds a BA and an MA in classics from Brown, and she’s spent a few decades teaching Latin and Greek to high school students. When it comes to the ancient world she clearly knows her stuff, as typified by this wonderful throwaway description of the goddess Athena:
She smiled like a temple snake over its bowl of cream.
Miller is also, lucky for us, an exceedingly accomplished writer of fiction. She well understands, for example, the key principle that the further removed a story is from standard contemporary realism, the more viscerally recognizable the sensory details used to animate the setting must be. Consider a few lines of description taken almost at random from the novel:
The breeze blew, carrying the scent of linden flowers. At its back, the muddy stink of the pigs.
The ship was close to shore by then, its prow casting a shadow like a needle over the waves.
Or this passage, when Circe and Daedalus board a ship bound for Crete:
At Minos and Pasiphaë’s wedding, the huddle of mortals I had glimpsed seemed distant and blurred, as alike as leaves on a tree. But here, beneath the sky, each face was relentlessly distinct. This one was thick, this one smooth, this one bearded with a hooked nose and narrow chin. There were scars and calluses and scrapes, age-lines and cowlicks of hair. One had draped a wet cloth around his neck against the heat.
Or Miller’s description of the mythical palace of Knossos:
Before us, the huge limestone stairs wavered in the heat. Men streamed past us, servants and nobles alike, their shoulders sun-darkened and bare. Above, the palace of might Knossos glowed on its hill like a hive.
This is the kind of writing that allows us to see the described scenes clearly in our mind’s eye. Actually, “allows” isn’t a strong enough word. Encountering passages like these we can’t help but see the described scenes, because with or without our consent, our subconscious has already constructed a more detailed version of said imagery and projected it in our mind’s screening room.
Humans are creatures ruled and driven by our imaginations. Perhaps it’s one of the things that set us apart. Regardless of how the autonomous and powerfully impressionable human imagination evolved, the best novelists have a gift for harnessing it. They understand, in other words, that vividly imagistic description is the key to creating what might be called ecstatic fiction—a story capable of launching a mind interpreting black marks on a white page into an immersive sensory dream.
Miller possesses this gift in spades. Take a look at this lead-up to an encounter with Scylla (of Scylla & Charybdis fame):
The mist came first. It closed in wet and heavy, obscuring the cliffs, then the sky itself. We could see little, and the sound of the sucking whirlpool filled our ears. That whirlpool was of course the reason Scylla had chosen these straits. To avoid its pull, ships must steer close to the opposite cliff. It brought them right beneath her teeth.
We pushed on through the thick air. As we entered the straits, the sound grew hollowed, echoing off the stone walls. My skin, the deck, the rail: every surface was thick with spray. The water foamed and an oar scraped the rock-face. A small sound, but the men flinched as if it were a thunderclap. Above us, buried in the fog, was the cave, and Scylla.
I find this passage stunning, in part because the imagery is sharp, concrete and recognizable—we’re helpless before our imaginations as they construct vividly unfolding scene—and in part because of the way it sings the meaning of itself. Mark the meter as you read these sentences aloud; notice the assonance and dissonance, the way the syllables knock and creak and slip. For me at least, it’s a music resonant of fear and uncanny dread.
So in addition to the sensory imagery projected on our mind’s eye we have a soundtrack, with the result that we’re transported right onto the deck of this ship crowded with helpless sailors. And Scylla, when she comes, is going to scare the living crap out of us.
Madeline Miller is a direct literary heir of the great Mary Renault, and to read Circe is to be transported into an immersive story-world rooted deeply in the soil of Greek mythology. But the leaves and blossoms of the plant, like a divine herb growing in the garden of the witch-goddess herself, are imprinted with the unmistakable hallmarks of familiar, earthbound nature:
The air smelled of frost, and one or two flakes trickled from the sky. A thousand thousand times, I had crossed Aiaia’s slopes. The poplars, black and white, lacing their bare arms. The cornels and apple trees with fallen fruits still shriveling on the ground. The fennel tall as my waist, the sea rocks white with drying salt. Overhead, the skimming cormorants called to the waves. Mortals like to name such natural wonders changeless, eternal, but the island was always changing, that was the truth, flowing endlessly through its generations.
It’s quite a journey. At its heart is the notion that accepting one’s own mortality is a necessary prerequisite to living a life of purpose and joy, and a conviction that the simple beauty of our own natural world is worthy of celebration. Miller’s novel demonstrates that fiction itself can provide a vessel for that celebration. And when it’s done very well, it can even be worthy of myth.
TIM WEED’s short fiction collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing, made the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Shortlist and was a finalist in the short story category for the American Fiction Awards and the International Book Awards. His first novel, Will Poole’s Island, was named to Bank Street College of Education’s list of the Best Books of the Year. Tim is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and his writing has appeared in Literary Hub, The Millions, The Writer’s Chronicle, CRAFT, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. He teaches in the Newport MFA in Creative Writing and is the co-founder of the Cuba Writers Program.