From The Odyssey of Homer to the pages of Wonder Woman comics, Circe is a name with which I’m extremely familiar. Thanks to following a number of other readers’ blogs out there, I’m also familiar with the name Madeline Miller, though as of this writing, I’ve not read her debut novel The Song of Achilles. Forgive me in advance, because I’m about to go through a long-winded explanation of what’s in my head when I go into a novel like this. Some of it is decidedly unfair, but it’s shaped in large part by my own experiences across decades. Bear with me. Hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end to see what this novel was up against in my own little world.
I’m one of those who is generally skeptical of hype. I love to see an author succeed, don’t get me wrong, but I want them to do so because they truly earned it, not because they fed into an already gamed system and became the flavor of the month. I feel that readers are less discerning because books are becoming so incredibly cookie cutter and niche. It has more to do with people having less experience with the classics than anything else, or bad experiences with them thanks to bad teachers. When I was growing up, what passed for books for kids my age were considerably less sophisticated, and I was one of those precocious children who would not be told no regarding the idea of reading something well above my ability to understand. So, you see, hot on the heels of my experience in the movie theater with Clash of the Titans back in 1981, seven year old me set forth on a quest to bleed the library dry of all things Greek mythology, from Edith Hamilton to Ovid and beyond. I had no idea what Greece was, but I was all in. By the time I was ten, I had read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, and while I didn’t fully understand them, I knew these were books of greatness that would unfold their secrets to me with time. Since then, I’ve read them in multiple English translations, both in prose and in the original poetry. I’ve come to understand why these epics have withstood the test of time. So, you understand, it’s not that I don’t believe other reviewers. I take them at their word when they say they enjoy something. It’s that I’m spoiled by my own personal experiences. When one is steeped in Beethoven or John Williams, one can’t help but grin when someone praises Katy Perry or Bruno Mars as gods. Still, everything has their place in the grand scheme, and it’s in understanding what those places are that someone can discern why and how The Beatles are not like other boy bands before or since. When one has experienced the full might of Milton’s Paradise Lost, one is not likely to be impressed with Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Harry Potter? Riiiiiiight. I get it, but such works aren’t for me because the inspirations for such offer me so much more. Tolkien killed Rowling for me long ago, but I appreciate her effort in getting people to read again in an age when most simply didn’t. As with Pullman, I tried Rowling, and I was duly unimpressed. Call me a snob if you will; such only serves to underscore how much someone else has not yet experienced. I will certainly not apologize from the time and effort I’ve put into my appreciation of the arts. Many authors have written of Greek myth. Many of those fall flat, but I do smile because I get the attraction. Accordingly, I do not fault anyone for enjoying what they encounter. Everything serves as a potential gateway to something far greater, as Clash of the Titans served for me. Let’s be honest here: Greek mythology is a most fertile ground for storytelling potential. Time has proven that it can and will light the imagination on fire, given the opportunity to do so.
Time has shaped me from thinking my next read will be my favorite to acknowledging that most authors today shape themselves to audience expectation rather than living up to their fullest potential as a creator. Part of that is to maximize the impact of the reviews on social media rather than to let the work raise the audience to a new level. The other part is a basic fear of not being accepted by the masses. Play to them and never be disappointed, so the theory goes. As always, some books are better than others, and all of it is in the eye of the beholder, but the social media age has allowed us to find an average in the voices of those who read the books and are likewise looking for website hits and follows and likes of their own for their reviews. When a reviewer doesn’t gush, when someone turns in a less than 5 star review, authors cringe, and some have gone out of their way to bribe or even to argue for a better rating. And so, the cookie cutter mill of modern publication churns out patterns of stories with blanks filled in to appease a level of expectation. Quantity over quality. Whatever. So long as people enjoy what they read, who am I to argue? I’ve certainly got favorites among the “lesser” works, and I freely acknowledge that every book is potentially someone’s favorite. Love what you love, and don’t ever apologize for it. Expect that I’ll do the same, and expect that I’ll be able to back it up. Remember, in all of this ranting about greatness, my first experience that drew me into Greek mythology was a cheesy little movie that just happened to feature an amazing cast that by every right should have turned that film down for being beneath them. I’m glad they didn’t, but hopefully you see my point.
And this is why I love reading reviews from other people, because I need the perspectives of others that I can’t and won’t have. I can peel away from other reviewers those nuggets that serve to inform me what it is that might be in this story beyond the hype, beyond something being just the next big thing. If you’ll forgive the crude analogy here, people tend to praise big things like they’re Star Wars, but many turn out to be flash-in-the-pan emptiness like Twilight. Such an example serves to point out just how the industry has shaped both writers and readers, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the work that goes into a novel. I’ve done it a couple of times myself, unpublished, which is quite the learning experience. I understand the process, and sometimes I can tell from multiple reviews how much an author may or may not have offered of their soul in that process. But even then, you never know where the next true classic will spring forth. I still live in constant hope of being impressed by my next read. Ideally, isn’t that how all bookworms live? Every book I’ve ever enjoyed, no matter how old it was, was brand new to an audience at some point. I’m not opposed to new. I’m opposed to the cookie cutter crap being passed off as the next big thing. For the record, this happens in every genre these days. It’s a perpetuated cycle of readers not being that discerning, reviewers looking for praise that will bring them more attention from authors, authors looking to get their books into the hands of these reviewers long before their books are truly ready for primetime, and everyone patting themselves on the backs because the circle goes ’round again. It’s the same cycle it always has been, but in the age of social media, it’s just… more so.
If you’ll pardon that jaded bit of unedited and unfiltered soapbox exposition that probably should have been a separate blog post, that brings us back to Madeline Miller’s Circe. That’s what this review is supposedly about, after all, and I’ve gone over a thousand words at this point without saying anything about it. Funny how that works. This book has been praised from on high across the blogosphere, and combined with my obvious interest in the subject matter, I couldn’t help but be curious. First step: learn about the author. It turns out that Miller has worked as a teacher of Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare and is steeped the mythology that provides the source material for her novels. While I expect authors to have done the legwork that goes into their stories, I don’t expect them to be experts in that material. If anything, most writers learn just enough to be dangerous, but I always appreciate it when they go that extra mile. In this case, Miller has logged all the miles and has passed that knowledge on to others in the process. This officially has my attention. Next step: subject matter. Greek mythology has me at hello, so that’s certainly no problem, but the character of Circe… a serious character study of one of the most popular feminine voices in all of literature has a great deal of potential. Expectations? Oh, yes… I’ve got some now. We proceed to the final step. I head over to Audible, drop my credit, and… like so many other books, it waits patiently for me to catch up to it. But here we are now, at last. I got there in the end.
The thing to understand about classical mythology is that, like so many things in the Western canon, most of it is male-centric, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some truly amazing women. Case in point, who else but a Spartan woman could bear a Spartan warrior as a son or a wife? The Trojan War was fought because of a beauty contest between goddesses that went awry, thanks to the prodding of another goddess and a simple golden apple. In the aftermath of that war, in the midst of Homer’s Odyssey, we meet Circe, a witch-goddess who stands apart from her fellow gods, exiled to the mortal world, living among the animals and transforming men into beasts. It says a great deal about male perception of such encounters with this character. And it also says she’s got a backstory to explain who she is, how she got there, why she does what she does, and how she feels, both as a woman and as a goddess.
As one would expect, there are a great many touchstones to other characters and other myths woven throughout this novel. The setup screams “patchwork quilt,” but it comes across as quite the tapestry. That’s what I want to focus on for purposes of this review. The stories are there for anyone to find. What matters is how they’re brought together, expanded upon, and made real through modern storytelling. What Madeline Miller has done in this story for Circe is very much in the same vein as what Marion Zimmer Bradley did for Morgan Le Fay. To spell it out (no pun intended) for those not familiar with The Mists of Avalon, Bradley turned a one-dimensional evil sorceress with sketchy-at-best explanations of who she is or why she does anything into a magnificent Celtic priestess fighting for the survival of her culture during the rise of Christianity in the era when Arthurian legend is being forged. Translate that exact idea, albeit nowhere nearly as long and ornate, to classical mythology. In Miller’s most elegant prose, Circe has become a fully realized embodiment of feminine power, of the mysteries of womanhood. It is a stunning counterpoint to portrayals I’ve seen in Homer and elsewhere that not only compliments the ancient tales, but also fills something of a void in modern literature and in modern culture. This is a story that deserved to be told. It deserved to be told with all due eloquence. For all of the immortal power being demonstrated, Miller reminds us that the gods are human after all, that we are they, and they are we. Where The Odyssey is an external adventure to return home, Circe is an internal journey to become whole. This novel is an easy, fast read. It welcomes you in with simplicity. It holds you there with its verisimilitude. It doesn’t have the weight and majesty one might expect, but it brings a lot of heart. The reader grows as Circe grows, and when it’s over, there is a imprint one’s psyche, however soft it may feel when compared to more heavy-hitting works. That feels like the truest mark of a modern classic if ever there was one. At the very least, Miller deserves the praise she’s been getting. This book is meant to be enjoyed.
Rabbit holes being what they are, I’ll be circling around at some point to read The Song of Achilles, and I will most definitely keep Miller’s career on my radar. But for now, this book has inspired me to revisit some old friends in the form of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Where things will unfold from there is anyone’s guess, because we all know how flighty I can be.