Adrift on island spells
Like the Ancients, Madeline Miller knows how to tell a story. The Song of Achilles won her the Orange Prize in 2012, and the charm and pace of her retelling of The Iliad are again noticeable in her story of Circe, minor immortal but powerful witch, with whom Odysseus spends a year on the island, Aiaia, during his journey back to Ithaca.
Miller’s search for a coherent narrative from among the various accounts of Circe, not just in The Odyssey but also in Hesiod’s Theogony, in the summary of the lost epic, Telegony, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the epic, Argonautica, and other sources, required that she choose certain traditions out of many conflicting ones. From her choices emerges the viewpoint of Circe herself, usually overlooked in the epics. Not only does Miller attempt to excavate a female voice from the male world of classical tales, but she also homes in on the West’s first witch to do so. Written in the first person, Circe is a colourful novel of growth, self-scrutiny and change, phenomena unknown to immortals.
Unloved by her parents, Helios, the Titan sun-god, and Perse, daughter of Oceanos, and either laughed at or ignored by her siblings, one of whom is Pasiphaë, mother of the Minotaur and Ariadne, and Aeëtes, keeper of the golden fleece and father of Medea, Circe has a rather pitiful growing up. She is deeply awed by Prometheus, to whom she secretly gives water to drink after he has been lashed mercilessly in her father’s hall in what is one of the most memorable scenes of the novel. She gradually discovers her instinctive knowledge of the power of herbs and flowers. The discovery comes accidentally, when she tries to make her first human lover immortal and to turn her rival in love into a monster. Unnerved by her powers, Helios banishes her to Aiaia. Only then does her consciousness begin to bloom.
Working tirelessly to develop her powers, she grows into a fearsome sorceress. Although she turns men into pigs when they try to rape her, her sufferings are all too human. She knows loneliness, the pain of loss, the need for love, while the love she has for her sporadic human lovers and demi-god son is tender and generous.
It is an old question that Miller’s novel raises. Can a female voice be imagined without empowering the woman in times when women had no agency? Perhaps the unfolding consciousness of Circe is one way of answering this question.