Circe by Madeline Miller

It’s been a long wait for Madeline Miller’s second novel (her first, The Song of Achilles, was published in 2011), and now that I’ve read it I’m pleased to say that I thought it was worth waiting for. I enjoyed The Song of Achilles, though maybe not as much as other people seemed to, but I found Circe an even more interesting read with characters and storylines which I personally found much more appealing.

I will start by admitting that before beginning this novel, I knew nothing about the witch Circe other than what I remembered from her appearance in the Odyssey, when Odysseus lands on the island where she lives alone with her lions and wolves, turning men into pigs. My knowledge of Greek mythology is sadly lacking, so I was curious to find out what else her story would involve and how it would be enough to fill a whole book.

The first thing we learn is that Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse. She grows up in the shadow of her seemingly more talented siblings, possessing neither the beauty of her sister Pasiphaë, who goes on to marry King Minos of Crete, nor the magical powers of her brothers Perses and Aeëtes (the future king of Colchis). To make matters worse, she even has the voice of a mortal rather than a goddess. It is only when she is driven by an uncontrollable jealousy to cast a spell on a rival that she discovers she does have a talent for witchcraft after all…but this same action results in her exile to the remote island of Aiaia.

Her new home is lonely but peaceful and Circe occupies herself with taming the wild animals that share her island and learning the properties of the flowers and herbs that grow there. Gradually she becomes aware of the true extent of her abilities as a witch and finds that she is not the failure she has always believed herself to be.

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.

Although Zeus has forbidden her to leave the island, Circe is not entirely isolated and she receives a number of visitors bringing news from the outside world. I was surprised by how many different myths Madeline Miller pulls into the story – myths even I was familiar with, such as Jason and the Golden Fleece, Daedalus and Icarus, the torture of Prometheus, and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. I hadn’t expected to find all of these in a book about Circe (and I’m not sure how much involvement, if any, she has in other versions of these myths), but the way in which they were woven into the novel felt quite natural. The only problem is that with Circe trapped on her island, there’s a sense that most of the action is taking place elsewhere and our heroine is left to rely on information brought by Hermes and her other visitors.

It is not until halfway through the book that Odysseus comes to Aiaia and Circe’s story begins to overlap with the events of the Odyssey. This is another turning point in Circe’s life, as the time she spends with Odysseus leaves her with some important choices to make and carries the novel forward towards its conclusion.

I loved Circe; it’s a beautifully written novel and ideal for readers like myself who only have a basic knowledge of the Greek myths. I felt a stronger connection with Circe herself than I did with Patroclus in The Song of Achilles and for that reason this is my favourite of the two books, but I do think if you enjoy one of them you’ll probably enjoy the other.

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Iliad, told from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend and lover. Patroclus, the son of Menoetius, is only a child when he is exiled and sent to Phthia to live with King Peleus and his son, Achilles. Achilles is destined to become the greatest warrior of his generation and when he goes to Mount Pelion to receive training from the centaur, Chiron, Patroclus joins him there. As the years go by the bond between Achilles and Patroclus strengthens and their friendship develops into love, despite the attempts of Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, to separate them.

The Trojan War begins when Helen, the wife of Menelaus of Sparta, is abducted by Paris of Troy. Both Achilles and Patroclus are part of the Greek army who set out to defeat the Trojans and return Helen to her husband. I’ll stop there because if you already know the story, you’ll know what happens to Patroclus and Achilles – and if you don’t, then I won’t spoil it for you.

I used to be fascinated by Greek mythology as a child but as the years have gone by I’ve read very little on the subject, so I began this book hoping that it would be good enough to reawaken my interest in it. I haven’t read The Iliad and could only remember a few basic facts about the Trojan War that I learned at school, so I was worried I might find it difficult to follow the plot. Well, this wasn’t a problem because Madeline Miller made it all very accessible and understandable. I was surprised to find that I actually knew more than I thought I did and recognised the names of a lot of the heroes and gods who appeared in the novel. But although the Trojan War and the events leading up to it are an important part of the story, the real focus is on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Their love story was really beautifully written and filled with emotion and although the second half of the book didn’t sustain my interest as well as the first half did, I thought the final few chapters were particularly moving.

Achilles and Patroclus each have qualities that the other comes to value and admire. Achilles is handsome, talented and brave; Patroclus is quiet and loving. They both also have flaws: Patroclus often feels insecure while Achilles is sometimes too proud. It’s perhaps because they’re so different that they complement each other so well. I thought writing from the viewpoint of Patroclus was a good choice because it allowed us to see Achilles through the eyes of someone who loved him and also because, as a sensitive and observant narrator, he could give us interesting insights into the other characters as he met each of them for the first time, including Agamemnon, Briseis, Thetis, Ajax and my favourite, Odysseus.

I would recommend this novel to people like myself who only have a basic knowledge of Greek mythology (or none at all) as well as people who have already read The Iliad and are much more familiar with the story than I am. The Song of Achilles has something to offer both groups of readers. I’m still not sure that this is a subject I’m ever going to be passionately interested in, but after reading this book I do feel more enthusiastic about reading other novels based on Greek mythology.

The Song of Achilles was the winner of this year’s Orange Prize. I haven’t read any of the others on the shortlist because none of them really appealed to me, but having read this one I’m sure it was a deserving winner.