Circe, by Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury, 352 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1408890080
The abiding force in all Greek myth is that which Hegel would have described as the “abstract universal”, or what you and I might call fate. Even the greatest of mythical heroes has little purchase in the face of overarching destiny. A powerful Corinthian king is humbled by fate, made to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again over and over for all eternity. A mighty titan is strapped to a rock; in the day he is visited by a giant eagle which pecks his liver out, in the night the liver regenerates – the process repeated ad infinitum. Even those who use their guile, their intelligence, to evade and thwart their fate end up welding themselves to it with redoubled force. Oedipus seeks to avoid his destiny – the prophecy which says he will sleep with his mother and kill his father – by moving to Thebes, but the attempt to escape his fate paradoxically yields its realisation; he kills a stranger on the way to Thebes who, unbeknownst to him, is his father – and in Thebes itself he marries the queen who, unbeknownst to him, is his mother.
The pre-eminence of the universal, of the objective – the broader movement of fate which takes place at the expense of individual subjectivity, whim and desire – has certain aesthetic consequences too. In The Iliad we understand that when Achilles enacts his final, genocidal slaughter of the Trojan soldiers he does so, not in his capacity as a professional soldier, but because the Trojans have killed his beloved Patroclus. But we only ever experience the tenor of Achilles’ grief and rage through his series of outward objective actions – the bloody mass slaughter of the opposing soldiers. But Homer does not, and cannot, reveal explicitly what is going on inside the great warrior’s mind; we are not apprised of his subjective thoughts and feelings about his loss and suffering; there is no equivalent in the epic of old to the soliloquy.
For this reason, one could argue that the task of reimagining the Greek myths for the modern period involves the need to fill the lacunae. In Madeline Miller’s exquisite and brilliant 2012 novel The Song of Achilles she reinvented Achilles’ story, but she went back to his childhood. She showed with beauty and deft simplicity the way in which he and Patroclus became friends as children, and how that friendship, drawn into adolescence, became something more, riven with tentative and wonderful implications. She showed how their romance developed by providing a window into adolescent subjectivity; all the doubts, insecurities and uncertainties, before finally it gives way before the brutalities of adulthood and war. By the time Patroclus is dead, and Achilles embarks on his killing spree, we feel his searing grief more vividly, for we have experienced, immanently and inwardly, his love for Patroclus bloom in and through a rich inner consciousness replete with childhood suffering and joy. Miller’s novel was acclaimed across the board for its beautiful and fluid writing, quick pace, evocative atmosphere and profound knowledge of the ancient Greek world; but most significantly of all, it allowed for the fusion of the antique with the modern, the objective with the subjective, and in so doing, created a work of tragic harmony, allowing the original epic to become more fully itself.
In raising up the subjective moment Miller was also able to give life to supporting characters who in the original were somewhat sidelined. The Song of Achilles is the story of the eponymous hero told from the perspective of Patroclus; we see Achilles through his eyes. Patroclus is an outsider, a character who has little “screen time” in the original epic poem, because he is really the means by which his swifter, stronger lover achieves his heroic deeds and reaches his tragic fruition. But Miller is fascinated by all those secondary characters – the marginalised and the “insignificant” – who live on the frayed edges of myth, and who often have little more than a walk-on part. They are often exploited by the characters but also by the poets, who conjure them up merely as a means to throw into relief the greatness of the central figures: mostly notably aristocratic Greek males who are seeking to stamp their heroism on the world. Of course, in Homer’s time, it would be inconceivable to write or sing an epic poem which had as its protagonist one of the lesser figures in the mythological pantheon, but for Miller such character types are the most alluring of all.
For her much anticipated new book she alights on the figure of Circe. Circe, depending on the source, was a titan/nymph/minor goddess who is most famously featured in Homer’s The Odyssey, a seductive and beguiling femme fatale of an immortal persuasion who seeks to enchant and bamboozle the plucky Odysseus, before eventually falling in love with him. As with The Song of Achilles, Miller goes back into the childhood of her central character; endeavouring to depict the forces which mould her protagonist into the lethal sorceress who can turn men to pigs and pigs to men again. Because Circe is an immortal, the daughter of Helios, god of the sun, she might seem less a marginalised outsider and more one of the Olympian elite, but Miller unveils a childhood which is brutal, exploitative and demoralising.
Circe is born into the great hall of the Titans, which is presided over by her father and his brothers. It is structured according to a glittering hierarchy of aristocratic privilege and cruelty, in which the nymphs and goddesses are the lowest in the chain, subordinate to the task of pleasuring the men, birthing the children, and providing the decorative paraphernalia for a world which is riven by a murderous predilection for deference, homage and glory. The titans are a bunch of omnipotent nobodies, all-powerful parasites, frittering away their immortality on purely sensual pleasures, court intrigues, furtive love affairs and bitter feuds. The children, the female children in particular, are treated as less than worthless – Circe most of all, whose voice is shrill and whose eyes do not shine as brightly as the other immortals. In a world where sleek beauty and vulpine cunning are prized among the females competing to raise themselves up, the curious, credulous Circe is ill-equipped to flourish, and her sisters mock her remorselessly: “Her eyes are yellow as piss, Her voice is screechy as an owl … she should be called Goat for her ugliness.”
Circe is neglected and derided because she does not live up to male expectations of what being female should be: another presciently modern theme which Miller teases out throughout this work. Like many neglected children, Circe spends most of her time alone, exploring the secret crevices of the world around her, wandering in the forests and the rocky beaches, retreating into the rich inner world of her imagination as a palliative to the perpetual, everyday cruelty she receives. She becomes something of an anomaly, a blight, an outsider, but her very negation is something which the sorceress-in-the-making is able to transfigure; while she lacks the shimmering beauty and the resplendent magical powers of her immortal brethren, her lonely sojourns outside the great hall –the seat of Titan power – allow her to start working with her hands, to explore the plants and roots of the forest around her, to milk the sap from strange, otherworldly flowers, to capture their fragrances, to enchant the animals around her. Miller’s writing style is delicate but rich, and perfectly equipped to render the processes of agriculture and animal husbandry with a divine, magical sheen:
My powers lapped upon themselves like waves. I found I had a knack for illusion, summoning shadow crumbs for the mice to creep after, making pale minnows leap from the waves beneath a cormorant’s beak. I thought larger: a ferret to frighten off the moles, an owl to keep away the rabbits. I learned that the best time to harvest was beneath the moon, where dew and darkness concentrated sap. I learned what grew well in a garden, and what must be left to its place in the woods. I caught snakes and learned how to milk their teeth. I could coax a drop of venom from the tail of a wasp. I healed a dying tree. I killed a poisonous vine with a touch.
The book is peppered with descriptions of this kind, lavish prose heaving with colour and life, a richly poetic homily to Circe’s encounter with nature through her mystical, magical labours. But the idea here involves much more than literary atmosphere and prettification. Miller contrasts Circe’s form of labour practice with the decadent idleness of the divine more generally:
By rights, I should never have come to witchcraft. Gods hate all toil, it is their nature … There is no tedious mining, the ores leap willing from the mountain. No fingers are ever chafed, no muscles strained. Witchcraft is nothing but such drudgery. Every herb must be found in its den, harvested at its time, grubbed up from the dirt, culled and stripped, washed and prepared.
The titans, for all their omnipotent power, leave no true trace on the world; they kill and they maim, they solicit obeisance and revel in ancient glories, but they do not create, they do not transform matter, they do not shape it into something fundamentally new. They remain supremely decadent, idling away eternity and, for all their strength, they lack imagination. Like this, Miller carefully cultivates an ideological opposition between the manual labour of the oppressed and the pronounced aristocratic parasitism of the oppressor, an opposition which opens up between the human world and the world of the divine. Such an opposition, in fantasy form, has a real and historical resonance in the ancient Greek world. Homer, for instance, writing about Odysseus, describes how the Ithacan ingeniously fashions his marriage bed out of the roots of a great tree, so that the bed itself remains immovable and sturdy; a testament to the wily Odysseus’ craftsmanship and also a monument to the love between him and Penelope. In book XXIII of The Odyssey Odysseus says:
For a great secret went into the making of that complicated bed; and it was my work and mine alone. Inside the court there was a long-leaved olive-tree which had grown to a full height with a stem as thick as a pillar. Round this I built my room of close-set stone-work … I lopped all the twigs off the olive, trimmed the stem from the root up, rounded it smoothly and carefully with my adze and trued it to the line, to make my bedpost. This I drilled through where necessary, and used as a basis for the bed itself, which I worked away at till that too was done, when I finished it off with an inlay of gold, silver, and ivory, and fixed a set of purple straps across the frame.
Homer, like Miller, provides a meticulous, almost loving description of the empirical details of manual labour, and in the eighth century manual labour could still be regarded as something to be respected and revered. Fast-forward to the heyday of the Athenian polis. Here, a class of slaves – organised on a systematic scale and much greater in number than that which had existed in the Mycenaean Greece of Odysseus and Agamemnon – shouldered much of the burden of the manual labour which helped prop up Athenian democracy and the rich literary and philosophical culture which arose from it. For this reason, the role of manual labour was ideologically reconfigured; whereas Homer, and the heroes he wrote about, would have regarded it as an ennobling endeavour, the great philosopher Plato described “mechanical crafts” and the raising of “sordid beasts” (farming) as activities which belong to the “lowest rank”, allowing their participants to become encumbered in materiality, to turn away from the ideal and the “soul”. Both Plato and Aristotle described those free men who engaged in manual labour as “banausic”, a word which came from a pre-Hellenic term for “fire-worker” and which denotes the degraded state of one whose living comes from some other means than the hereditary possession of land. For Plato and Aristotle, hereditary wealth and aristocratic lifestyle, free from the drudgery of manual labour, were most able to bestow the sublime and human qualities required for a worthwhile life.
In marshalling the distinction between the hereditary, aristocratic life, and the type of labour whose rewards are hard fought for in and through a practical engagement with the objective world, Miller harnesses a fundamental historical distinction which she then superimposes on her magical realm to great aesthetic effect. Because Circe is estranged, because she is in effect an exile in her own home, she begins to develop the type of power that one has to struggle for, to win through for oneself, by one’s own efforts; something which does not inhere in divine genes and cannot emerge fully formed, like Athena springing from Zeus’s head. Circe’s alienation from the world of the divine simultaneously presupposes a fascination with the creative imagination, the fight to shape and transform the world through a practical engagement with it, even if the process is hard and drawn-out and strewn with failure along the way, or to say the same, turning to manual labour and the land and away from divinity, Circe becomes fascinated with mortality itself. A fisherman’s boat washes up on the island, and she encounters her first real human being. Her fascination with mortality grows:
His name was Glaucos and he came every day. He brought along bread, which I had never tasted … and olives that I liked to see his teeth bite through … No one had ever confided so in me. I drank down every story like a whirlpool sucks down waves, though I could hardly understand half of what they meant, poverty and toil and human terror. The only thing that was clear was Glaucos’ face, his handsome brow and earnest eyes, wet a little from his griefs but smiling always when he looked at me.
I loved to watch him at his daily tasks, which he did with his hands instead of a blink of powder: mending the torn nets, cleaning off the boat’s deck, and sparkling the flint. When he made his fire, he would start painstakingly with small bits of dried moss placed just so, then the smaller twigs, then larger, building upwards and upwards. This art too, I did not know. Wood needed no coaxing for my father to kindle it.
Again the same patient, lyrical descriptions of manual labour, the weaving of it with the human life, and Circe’s own developing fascination for mortality. From such fascination comes love too, a love for the unassuming and gentle sailor who has washed up on the divine shore, someone so unlike the frigid, power-saturated, imperious creatures who populate her own inner circle. Can gods love? Miller seems to suggest not: they hunger for homage, they are ravenous for worship and placation, but they can only relate to others from the position of absolute power, from the heights of the heavens and the sun. In her fascination with the earth, and with mortality, however, Circe is infected by one of its most profound traits – she comes to love Glaucos. And with love comes terror, a mortal terror, the awareness of death, the inevitable and irretrievable loss of the beloved, and this is something the young goddess experiences too – a splitting, tearing pain against an eternally beating heart. Circe is subdued, yes, but determined; quietly stubborn, she resolves to gird her beloved against death by transforming him through her witchcraft into one of her immortal brethren. But in rendering Glaucos immortal, she also warps everything that is good and noble in his personality; more and more does he develop the imperiousness of the other gods, the disregard for mortal life, the empty-headed fascination with beauty and glory. He drifts away from Circe and into the arms of Scylla, the most beautiful of the nymphs. Scylla taunts Circe about the fact that Glaucos has asked her to marry him. Circe mixes a terrible potion from the herbs which surround her, from a sense of rejection and bitter jealousy. She transforms the nymph into the monster.
The incident is crucial to the plot: it is what presages Circe’s expulsion from the realm of the Titans and her exile to the solitary island of Aeaea. But what happens to Scylla herself is also noteworthy. Before Circe has transformed her into a monster, she is described as “one of the jewels of our halls … The river-gods and nymphs sighed over her … When she moved she clattered faintly from the thousand presents they pressed on her: bracelets of coral, pearls about her neck in strings”. Though, in one sense, the other gods relate to her positively – they desire her, they appreciate her beauty – nevertheless one has the sense that Scylla’s being is objectified; her individuality is thing-like, set against the other “jewels” in the halls. The others relate to her in purely material terms, “the thousand presents they pressed on her”. Again there is something hollow, something reified in these exchanges between the gods and the beautiful nymph, and once Circe has denuded Scylla of her beauty, once she has made her monstrous, the loathing and resentment which the others have always secretly harboured toward the “object” of their desires at once manifests in scathing and hate-filled terms:
I would have said that Scylla was their darling … But now when I looked around me, all I saw were faces bright as whetted blades. They clung to each other, crowing … My cousins’ voices swarmed up to the ceiling. You know she’s lain with half the halls … And one of the river-gods voices, rising over all: Of course she barks. She always was a bitch! Shrieking laughter clawed at my ears. I saw a river-god who had sworn he would fight Glaucos over her crying with mirth. Scylla’s sister pretended to howl like a dog. Every my grandparents had come to listen, smiling at the crowd’s edge.
The almost manic sense of glee which accompanies Scylla’s downfall expresses how the female goddesses in the pantheon are simultaneously desired and despised, both raised up and demeaned, possessed and destroyed. The way in which Miller exhibits the contrary elements within a specific type of sexual objectification has again a very modern resonance; this is a book which I don’t think could have been written twenty years ago, before the slut walks, fourth-wave feminism, and perhaps even the #MeToo movement. It provides a highly modern (and truthful) reading of an ostensibly ancient fantasy world. Scylla’s monstrous fate and the double standards of those who gloried in her downfall becomes a keen metaphor for the way society can use a woman’s own body against her, as a means to reduce and demean her.
In 2014 a celebrity hacking scandal broke. A number of famous and talented actresses had private pictures of themselves naked hacked and made available to the public online. But the exposure of these women was about more than just titillation. It was about the attempt to remind them that however elevated they had become in society, they could always be easily pulled down, reduced to their bodies in isolation, converted into objectified, sexualised “things” which can be possessed and diminished. When some of them spoke out against this criminal invasion of their privacy, much of the press bayed in unison that the victims had brought this treatment on themselves by being too public, too brazen. Again the line between the adoration of the female body and the hatred for it became a thin one. Writing about the celebrity hacking scandal, journalist Kelsey McKinney noted:
The response to these pictures is terrifying. It is a perfect, encapsulated reminder that your body can be used as a weapon against you. That slut-shaming is so prevalent and accepted in this culture that you could lose your job, or your boyfriend, or your credibility if a photo you once took was stolen from you – and then you will be the one blamed for it.
In the crime which is visited on Scylla, her body is quite literally “used as a weapon” against her, not, however, by one of the more entitled male gods, but by Circe herself. Again this testifies to the strength of Miller’s writing – Circe is from the outset a complex character, often morally ambiguous, sometimes tainted by the type of imperiousness and hot-headedness carried by the blood which flows through immortal veins. Her crime against Scylla has the most awful of consequences; in transforming the nymph into a gigantic, snapping, multi-headed hound, she ensures a legacy of murder and mayhem visited on the mortal sailors who have the misfortune to pass their boats through Scylla’s cove. In the same vein, Miller presents Circe’s sister Pasiphaë as someone who displays all the typical traits of immortality: she is preening, vengeful, superficial, vindictive and delights in subjugation, torture and mass murder. Because Circe, as a child, is an outsider, Pasiphaë bullies her relentlessly and continues to delight in her humiliation as the centuries roll by. Pasiphaë is a nightmare, it is true, but a third of the way through the book the two sisters meet again, and Miller allows an element of ambiguity to slip into the vicious persona the divine Queen of Crete has so ruthlessly cultivated. Pasiphaë comments on the world of the gods in the following terms:
They take what they want, and in return they give you only your own shackles. A thousand times I saw you squashed. I squashed you myself. And every time, I thought, that is it, she is done, she will cry herself into a stone, into some croaking bird, she will leave us and good riddance. Yet always you came back the next day. They were all surprised when you showed yourself a witch, but I knew it long ago. Despite your wet-mouse weeping, I saw how you would not be ground into the earth. You loathed them as I did. I think it is where our power comes from.
Circe is shocked by this revelation: “She hated our family? She had always seemed to me their distillation, a glittering monument to our blood’s vain cruelty.” Miller does not absolve Pasiphaë of her cruelty, but shows how she too developed in a condition of alienation, the suffering wrought from being female in a male dominated world; her powers developed in and through the struggle to survive and indeed flourish in such a world. Circe then understands, for the first time, that there is this bond between herself and her sister. The fundamental difference lies in that fact that Pasiphaë has sought her own form of self-determination by accommodating herself to the ruthless patriarchal system in which she is located; she becomes as deadly, callous and ruthless as the most belligerent of the male gods; this is key to her own “survival”. Circe’s story, on the other hand, involves a radical break with the social system in which she is located; the discovery of her own powers is essentially a revolutionary act which allows her to take the side of the oppressed, of the mortal world.
But even if the opposition between divinity and mortality is, in Circe, an opposition between oppressors and oppressed, Miller never portrays the world of “men” as being one of untrammelled goodness. The mortal world, just like the immortal one, is multi-layered and its interactions are complex. The men in question are often brutal, seeking out glory through conquest, pillage and prolonged war, desperate to win the approval of the divine spectres who entertain themselves by rearranging mortal lives, sending them into collision, like pieces set out on a chess board. Any illusions Circe has about the innate goodness of men are shattered by the rape she endures at the hands of sailors who have washed up on her island in a storm and to whom she has provided hospitality and food. As soon as the goddess is able to recover herself, the men in question are treated to a brutal transfiguration which the author describes in satisfying detail, and the stage is then set for the other elements of the myth – the sailors that are lured to the island to be transformed into pigs, and eventually the arrival of Odysseus himself.
I say “myth” but that really that should be plural. The Song of Achilles was a single myth; it took flight from The Iliad and its perfection had a certain kind of simplicity, resting on the detailed, meticulous unfurling of the relationship which develops between Patroclus and Achilles. Circe, however, does not encompass one myth but many: the myths of Prometheus, Scylla and Charybdis, Jason and Medea, Icarus and Daedalus, Minos and the Minotaur, and many others besides. The plotline by which Glaucos falls in love with Scylla is influenced by Ovid, while the concluding part of the novel draws heavily on the mysterious, lost sequel to The Odyssey – The Telegony – which tells the story of Circe’s son Telegonus, sired by Odysseus; a son who eventually kills his father as yet another of fate’s mysterious but inevitable prophecies is unfurled. The author mixes all these jostling tales into a seamless, harmonious potion worthy of her protagonist. And in expanding on elements from The Telegony Miller again manages to introduce a more modern tone: specifically, the relationship of Circe to her child, which then becomes very much the story of a single mother – a working woman if you will – who is desperately trying to balance a sorceress’s career with the demands of a young, squalling child. As the cultural critic Aida Edemariam quipped: “even goddesses, in this telling, can run out of nappies”. The pressures of motherhood, society’s expectations of the mother figure to be both saintly and serene, and the actual messy, visceral work of motherhood itself – the demanding, sucking hunger, the tantrums and the exhaustion – are harnessed by Miller and deftly woven into Circe’s isolation as she struggles to bring up Telegonus alone. The complex of emotions – of resentment, fear and love she feels – is raised to beautiful and humane heights:
He was not happy. A moment, I thought, I only need one moment without his damp rage in my arms … He hated this great world and everything in it, and me, so it seemed, most of all. I thought of all those hours I had spent working my spells, singing, weaving. I felt their loss like a limb torn away … I wanted to hurl him from me, but instead I marched on in that darkness with him … I held his fierce little face against me. The tears were standing in his eyes, his hair disordered, a small scratch on his cheek. How had he got it? What villain dared to hurt him? … I felt each breath in his thin chest, how improbable it was, how unlikely that this frail creature who could not even lift his head, could survive in the world. But he would survive. He would, if I must wrestle the veiled god himself.
Again there is little place in the original myths for such an inward exploration of the often contradictory emotions which suffuse motherhood. The rage and frustration the mother can feel toward her child at times – emotions which are often denied expression or validity by the rather patriarchal demand that the mother be only ever a willowy soft, unfading source of warmth and love. Of course, in the original poems and myths female characters such as Medea sometimes did exhibit very dark and contradictory behaviours toward their progeny. But it is worth noting that Medea’s horrific killing of her children does not emanate from the organic nature of her relationship to them – but from the fact that she is a woman scorned; she does what she does because her actions are a response to the way she has been used by a man, by Jason. Even in this, the most deliberate and cruel of acts, her fate has been, by and large, determined by forces outside herself, shaped as a desperate lovelorn response to masculinity. It is not only horrific, but it is in some sense fundamentally pathetic. Miller’s achievement is to show how single mother Circe struggles with her child, struggles to make of herself an effective and decent parent in conditions of loneliness and ostracisation, and Telegonus’ graduation into a kind, curious young man is stamped with the ferocious and unrelenting determination of his mother’s love. This, of course, helps set the basis for the finale of the novel, the way Circe’s story ends. The conclusion is fittingly moving, and without giving too much away, it is in keeping with the central theme of the novel, teasing out the one condition of life which is capable of enchanting the sorceress herself.
Hilary Mantel recently argued in one of her Reith lectures that a “persistent difficulty for women writers who want to write about women in the past” is that often those same writers “can’t resist retrospectively empowering them”. In my view this is not a “difficulty” in Miller’s Circe – rather it is one of the novel’s highest aesthetic attributes. But the form of empowerment Miller develops is a very specific one; it is conjured up from disempowerment – in Hegelian terms it represents a negation of negation – its possibility is created in and through alienation and subjugation. Circe becomes strong and authentic and genuine and most truly human because she is an outsider subject to the deprivations of a social system which is geared to work against her. It is in this context that the possibility for true freedom and self-determination is grown.
Looking at the American political landscape, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Slut Walks, Occupy Wall Street – it is difficult, for me at least, not to feel in Circe’s ancient epic struggle something of the form and the impetus of these broader political movements, which were also formed by those who have been in some way exiled from the political mainstream and who begin to develop their own powers of freedom and self-determination in response. In bringing out the lives of the marginalised in ancient myth, in delivering to them an authentic voice through their subjectivity and pathos, Miller not only brings out more fully the dialogue between freedom and oppression which pervades the modern age: she is also, perhaps, spearheading a literary revolution of types. As the journalist Lucy Scholes writes:
The Classics are undergoing something of a feminist revisionist revolution right now. Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey – the first to be written by a woman – was published to great acclaim at the end of last year, and this August brings Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls: a “radical retelling of The Iliad” from the point of view of Briseis, the captured queen-turned-slave. So too, Miller’s Circe is a woman who will not be silenced.
Tony McKenna is a writer whose books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press) and a first novel, The Dying Light (New Haven Publishing).