Madeline Miller’s Olympian Soap Opera
Out of all the different mythologies and bygone depictions of divine beings, I think it would be safe to say the beliefs of Ancient Greece have outshone those of its peers, still being vividly re-imagined and profoundly explored in our modern times. The concept of Mount Olympus and the strange, often dramatic dynamics between the gods inhabiting it have always been a subject of fascination in the literary world in general, and many are those who have tried using it as a tapestry for their works. However, I would argue few have done it as effectively as Madeline Miller in her second published novel, titled Circe.
When the story begins we are presented with the titular Circe, born to the house of Helios, one of the two most powerful families of gods. Though she adores her father she can never quite live up to his name, nor can she live up to the beauty and powers of her siblings. The torments her family put her through have only made her look with more interest towards the mortal world, and falling in love with one of them opened up a whole new well of powers to her… powers which threaten the inhabitants of Mount Olympus.
Fearing what she might one day be able to do, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, hoping to stow her away for good. Circe, however, uses the opportunity to hone her art of witchcraft, and along the way makes the acquaintance of many figures from various mythological tales. Though she might be leading a solitary existence, her life doesn’t lack for any adventures or challenges, and thus she undertakes a great personal journey, on which will culminate with the million-dollar-question: does she belong to the world the gods she was born from, or the world of mortals where she finally made a home for herself?
New Expansion to an Old Legend
Though there are certainly many books out there which put modern twists and re-imagine olden myths and legends, in my opinion most of them stray a bit too far from their source material and put too strong of an emphasis on adding new ingredients to the pot. Mostly for this reason, I was quite glad to see the approach taken by Miller in writing this book. Instead of modernizing anything, she takes a character from the Odyssey, keeps her in the same time period, and simply expands further on her story. If there are any modern elements to speak of, they only come through in the form of the author’s modern writing style, but even this isn’t something I paid much attention to.
By maintaining the integrity of the setting and context for her story, I feel the author also made it quite natural and believable for her character to come across many other figures from the realms of Greek mythology. I never once for a second stopped to question how or why things happened, but rather simply accepted them as being a hitherto unknown development in the stories of these characters.
By my own admission, I’m not the most knowledgeable when it comes to Greek mythology, so I do believe I missed quite a few winks and references to other works in this category, but at the same time I never felt as if I was lost by any stretch of the imagination. Miller provides you with all the information you need to know about the people and beings we meet, to the point where I’d say it’s even possible to understand and enjoy this book while have absolutely zero mythological knowledge going into it.
The Power of Solitude
While the entirety of the book might be following Circe and her solitary stay on the deserted island, this doesn’t mean the plot is lacking in adventure or character development. To begin with, Circe herself is quite endearing in her strong and determined attitude as well as the eventual introspective abilities she demonstrates as she grows throughout the book. We stay on the island with her as throughout the centuries she faces one challenge after the next and learns to hone her fears as well as her potentially immense powers. Personally-speaking, I particularly enjoyed the comings and goings of Hermes bringing her news, the shipwrecked sailors who came to understand the wrath of a god like few before them, and the inclusion of the Minotaur into the whole equation. In other words, there is nary a boring moment on the island.
In terms of pace I actually found the plot moved forward more quickly than I expected, but always ensuring I had the time to take in what I was reading and digest it if necessary. The author knows how to keep things interesting by always throwing new elements into the mix to help keep the story fresh, and at a certain point it began to remind me of old tales about Greek Gods where they bicker with each other and all have their own drama to deal with. There is definitely a healthy dose of humour which comes along with the nature of the story, though to be frank I am not entirely certain as to how much this was intended by the author. Not really anything laugh-out-loud funny, but enough moments which bring a smile to one’s face.
The Final Verdict
All in all, Circe by Madeline Miller is one of the more interesting modern additions to Greek mythology I’ve had the pleasure of reading, bringing to the table a varied and interesting story, a captivating protagonist and enough food for thought to keep you satiated for a little while. If this genre fascinates you to any extent at all, then I highly suggest you give this book the chance it deserves.
Madeline Miller is an American novelist who spent ten years of her career working as a Latin and Greek teacher. So far she has penned two novels, The Song of Achilles and Circe, the former earning her the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, and the latter the 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fantasy.