CIRCE, BY MADELINE MILLER, A FEMINIST REWRITE OF THE ANCIENT GREEK TEXT OF ODYSSEY, CELEBRATES WOMANHOOD
The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s re-imagining of The Iliad that positioned the love story between Achilles and Patroclus centre stage, was both a bestseller and won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. With this recipe for success in hand, it’s not surprising that Miller has turned to the same model for her thrilling second novel, Circe, though this time it’s the Odyssey that provides the primary text.
The powerful witch Circe, who waylays Odysseus and his men on their long voyage home to Ithaca, is set free from the few meagre lines of text she’s afforded by Homer, and transformed here into the heroine of her own magnificent story.
The Classics are undergoing something of a feminist revisionist revolution right now. Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey 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.
“When I was born,” she begins her tale, “the name for what I was did not exist.” Circe’s witchcraft originates in her rage and jealousy, itself the result of years of harsh treatment at the hands of her more beautiful and powerful Titan kin — she is the firstborn of Helios the sun god and the beautiful nymph Perse. She’s dismissed as unattractive, her weak mortal’s voice considered most offensive of all, nevertheless she persists; one could well describe her as the original nasty woman.
The enchantress’ “virtue” is “endurance,” and Circe is accosted with much that demands forbearance, all of which makes for gleeful, greedy reading. Written in prose that ripples with a gleaming hyperbole befitting the epic nature of the source material, there is nothing inaccessible or antiquated about either Circe or her adventures. Miller has effected a transformation just as impressive as any of her heroine’s own: she’s turned an ancient tale of female subjugation into one of empowerment and courage full of contemporary resonances.