From what I can see, the majority of people who have read both Circe and The Song of Achilles tend to prefer Circe. Of course, that’s possibly just my Instagram bubble rather than a real statistic. I ended up enjoying The Song of Achilles way more than I expected. Yes, I had my issue but I think it was mostly well-written. My issues came from the YA of it all and the slightly cringey way the romance was written. However, I celebrate the fact that Madeline Miller represented their relationship in this way. More than anything, it was a sweet and emotional story that I was happy to have read. I didn’t immediately rush out to buy Circe but I did want to read it. After my recent run of Greek mythology novels, I decided it was finally time. Would I be one of the people who preferred this to the earlier book? Or would I buck the trend?
Circe is one of the more fascinating figures in Greek mythology. and is perhaps most remembered for the role she played in Homer’s The Odyssey. The daughter of the Titan Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse, Circe was a witch and a minor goddess. She has a vast knowledge of herbs and potions which causes the gods to be slightly fearful of her. She also has a habit of transforming people according to her will. It’s easy to see why Madeline Miller was so drawn to her as a protagonist and wanted to tell her story. Circe is an outsider on every level. She doesn’t look or sound like a goddess. She is shunned by her family and everyone around her. So, when it is revealed that she s a witch, it doesn’t take long for her to be banished to an island alone. After transforming the man she loves into a god and her rival into a sea monster, Circe confesses to her father. In order to prevent a war with Zeus, Helios sends his daughter to the island of Aiaia. Though she spends much of her time alone, Circe gets plenty of visitors. Not all of them are positive. All the while, her magical abilities are getting stronger and she finds ways to protect herself from danger.
It might just be that I didn’t know enough about Circe going into this but I spent a lot of time just waiting for Odysseus to turn up. I know that she was also a key figure in plenty of other myths but it’s her relationship with the king of Ithaca that I was most bothered about. It didn’t help that the beginning of Circe’s story just didn’t seem that strong. It just felt as though we were going through the motions to get to the interesting parts. Yes, we see her learn about her magic and we get to see her meet Hermes and Daedalus. These parts of her story sort of felt rushed. So we were always aware that we were building to something more important. It’s not as if these moments weren’t enjoyable but I was hoping for more depth and development. It doesn’t feel as though we really get to know Circe that well. We just see a bunch of events that happen near her. It’s like a perfect hits album of other people’s songs.
This book really starts to come together once Odysseus and his crew arrive on the island. Or just before. We see the reason why Circe became the kind of woman who transforms sailors into pigs. We start to see the powerful and strong woman that has never really had a starring role before. This is when Circe starts to grow a little and embraces her power. Yes, it’s not the most exciting or plot-driven part of the novel but I enjoyed these slower moments. We really got to know something about Circe’s character and how keenly she sees the world. Then, once her son is born, she faces the challenge of motherhood. Again, they may not be the strongest but it was interesting seeing how she adjusted to this new role. It didn’t soften her in the way that we expect mothers to be portrayed. She remained resilient and resolute, which I enjoyed.
However, it is the later sections that really stuck with me. The moments where we see her come face-to-face with Penelope are wonderful. I would happily have read a whole novel seeing the pair sit and chat about motherhood and duty. When you hear about a feminist rewrite of Greek mythology, this is what you expect, right? It’s got tension but understanding. The two women have so much in common but are also so different. You can see why Odysseus would have been drawn to both women and they seem to understand it too. On the other hand, we see Odysseus portrayed as less of a hero. We see the women discuss his flaws and break apart the reputation he built for himself. Again, this is the kind of thing I was looking for. Why couldn’t all of the novel have been like this?
It’s not that Circe is a dull book or badly written. It just didn’t grab me as much as I expected. Certainly not as much as The Song of Achilles did. I think Circe was a character with a great deal of potential but it never felt like Madeline Miller was using that full potential. Perhaps we could have done with fewer cameos from other characters and more focus on the woman herself. Instead, it feels as though Miller didn’t think there was enough to Circe’s story to fill a whole book. Something that just begs the question, why did she write one?
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