Ancient of Lays, vibrantly and powerfully brought to life
Madeline Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles, was a standout, stunning read. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and delight that I embarked on this, her second, Circe.
Within a few sentences I settled back with a huge sigh of surrendering relief, as it was clear from the off that the very high bar Miller had set for herself with her working of the story of Achilles was going to be equalled by Circe.
I can’t say this book is better than that one, or that one than this. In truth, she has sung another magical song for Circe.
There won’t be any surprises in the narrative, not for anyone enamoured of Ancient Greek – what do we call it, mythology? history?
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, out powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride
Here again is part of the story laid out in Homer
Circe is in sharpest relief as part of Odysseus’ task/journey. She is the daughter of Helios, one of the Titans – older, more archaic and unpredictable gods, who were overthrown by the Olympians. Circe, who transgressed in some way, ends up banished to an island. Her story connects with Odysseus as she is a witch/some kind of punitive goddess, and turned Odysseus’ sailors, and other sailors, into swine. Odysseus ‘tricks’ her, or is wise enough to be alert to how her spell happens (just don’t drink wine offered by witches)
Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away
But there is a lot more to Circe’s connections with these ancient lays, Jason, Medea, Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, Prometheus, Daedalus, Icarus and more, all have stories which touch hers
Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two
Miller, who I think is shaping up – if not exceeding, the carrying of Mary Renault’s mantle, breathes vibrant, relevant life into these tales of long ago.
She is immersed, as someone who went the academic route into the study of classical Greece, in her research. But, she is a transformative, magical, inspired writer. Either she knows the spells to get the Muses to descend, or she has inherited Circe’s special magical gift of ‘transformation’ because this gripping, intense, lush story springs off the page, and I have to say this ‘real’ world felt a flatter, colour leached one, compared to the enduring power of those classical times
I really cannot recommend this highly enough. Narrative, character, thought provoking substance and a skill with the craft of writing itself, all are superb.
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
I have to say that those Ancient Greeks have exerted a strong pull on me since childhood – mythic, archetypical, speaking to powerful collective unconscious depths. They are so much more than ‘fantasy’ And Miller, as a writer, gets those hairs up on the back of the neck shivers in this reader, echoing what some of those ancient sites in Greece do.
Another powerful woman who should not be messed with – Janelle Monae, Django Jane
Circe, in Miller’s telling, might easily be a Sister. Even though there is ONE bit of skulduggery against a prettier nymph, but, oh she realises her fault
I was delighted to read this as an ARC from Netgalley.