Back when I was in my finals at university – which seems a lifetime ago now! May 1995 to be precise! – there was a question on one of the exams – Practical Criticism I think, maybe – which has remained with me. There were three extracts from texts describing the temptation of Adam and Eve: one from Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale; one from Milton’s Paradise Lost; and the third I remember being a feminist and modern version, the name of which I have since forgotten. But the question was along the lines of “Which of these texts is a re-telling, a re-imagining or a re-creation of the Fall of Man?”
In hindsight, what a fabulous question! Those three terms are not – I believe – any term of art but all heavily loaded with judgement, so there I was at 21, free to come up with my own definitions! I also recall that through the exam, I changed my mind about the response I had given and backtracked! Apparently, that was one of the features that justified by being given a First.
But, the point is, that reading Circe in the wake of reading The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, I find myself pondering the same question. Re-telling? Re-imagining? Re-creation?
Circe is, like The Silence of the Girls, bound up in Homer and the Greek epics: Circe, most well known from Homer’s Odyssey and as a lover of Odysseus; The Silence of the Girls, based on Homer’s Iliad. Both novels are long listed for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. So the comparison is natural and perhaps inevitable. Circe ups the ante though, by having an immortal narrator and opens with Circe’s birth, millennia perhaps before Odysseus was born. Her path crosses some of the big stellar names (pun poor but fully intentional!) in Greek mythology: her father, Helios, the titan sun god soars above; Prometheus is scourged and punished; Athena and Hermes and Apollo stalk Miller’s pages, although cameos more than developed characters; the humans and mortals are given much more focus in Daedalus and Odysseus. I’d forgotten, as well – or perhaps had never known – Circe’s connection to Scylla or to the Minotaur. She is its aunt, for the benefit of future pub quiz glory. And also aunt to Medea, sorceress, wife to Jason and one of Euripides’ greatest tragic characters whose essence was instantly recognisable as Euripidean. As Circe comments in the opening chapter, “my tale is full of aunts”. Glaucos, I’d not known about before.
As is, perhaps, inevitable with an immortal narrative point of view, time scales slide and flex and a hundred years can be dismissed in a paragraph and the next three chapters focus on a period of a few weeks. As Circe herself says
I grew quickly. My infancy was the work of hours, my toddlerhood a few moments beyond that…. Divine days fall like water from a cataract, and I had not learned yet the mortal trick of counting them.
Consequently, the novel could have become a little episodic: once Circe was imprisoned on Aiaia for all eternity – had I believed her island to be her prison before? Had I assumed she just lived there? – there are long periods of her being isolated before being called back to the worlds of Gods and men. A lesser writer might not have managed that successfully but Miller manages to make the novel seem cohesive, bound together by the beauty and Edenic bounty of Aiaia. It felt like a homecoming when she returned to it even if her adventure beyond it had been fantastic and horrific.
Now, there is no doubt whatsoever that Madeline Miller – and this is the first book of hers I have read so I came with no preconceptions from The Song of Achilles – can write! Her descriptions are gorgeous and sensual and bursting with synaesthesia. The description of island and of Circe’s wonder at is is wonderful:
I learned to braid my hair back, so it would not catch on every twig, and how to tie my skirts at the knee to keep the burrs off. I learned to recognize the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral. I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac, and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the harbor safe for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud. I stroked the glossy brown scorpions who braved me with their tails. Their poison was barely a pinch. I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s halls had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while, I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.
And the tautness of her metaphors and verbs are wonderful and powerful. Just one example might be the lion she summoned, who
came rippling through my door at the next dusk, her shoulder muscles hard as stones.
And the sounds of voices are particularly resonant:
It was not the voice she had used with Jason, that cloying sweetness. It was not her gleaming self-assurance either. Each word was dark as an axe-head, heavy and unrelenting, and my blood drained at every blow… My words were tumbling out, catching fire as they went.
Rich, resonant, wonderful. And equally rich when describing horrors, which Miller doesn’t shy away from: Prometheus’ scourging at the hands of the Fury; Scylla’s transformation – or transformations; the minotaur’s birth. And Trygon, the ancient immortal stingray
Huge he was, white and gray, burned onto the depths like an afterimage of the sun. His silent wings rippled, rills of current flowing off their tips. His eyes were thin and slitted like a cat’s, his mouth a bloodless slash. I stared. When I had stepped into the water, I had told myself that this would be only another Minotaur to wrestle, another Olympian I might outwit. But now, with his ghastly immensity before me, I quailed. This creature was older than all the lands of the world, old as the first drop of salt. Even my father would be like a child before him. You could no more stand against such a thing than stem the sea….
All the monsters of the depths were covered in scars from battles with their brother leviathans. Not him. He was smooth all over, for none dared to cross his ancient power.
To be honest, you could practically pick any random page and find a beautiful quotation to add into a blog!
The character of Circe develops over the novel from – as is the way of characters – from a vulnerable and naive nymph to a capable and formidable witch in her own right, but was always someone with whom we empathised. Her transformation of Scylla into the monstrous man-devouring beast was horrific even if the transformation occurred off-stage and was only reported to us, but Circe didn’t become tainted by that, somehow: maybe it was an accident as Circe did not know her own powers at that point; maybe a childish petty revenge that had unexpected consequences. What didn’t really sit with me was the effort to insert the Homeric Circe, who transforms men into swine unprovoked, with Miller’s character who was wracked with guilt and empathy for mortals. Yes, there is a reason for it inserted into the narrative but it did ring a little false to me, a little forced; and therefore it made the redemption provided by Odysseus a little false too. Just a little. A single untuned note in a concert, perhaps.
The conclusion of the novel – which I won’t spoil – was wonderful and again Miller does something beautiful with her verbs! It was perhaps inevitable and had been foreshadowed, but how else was the Bildungsroman of an immortal nymph going to come to an end? Although the idea of her bemused and horrified reaction to ClubMed and Club 18-30 holiday pachages to Aiaia would have been intriguing!
Which brings me back to the question at the beginning, to that comparison with The Silence of the Girls. Both are certainly more than a mere re-telling of the mythology and both are wonderful in their own right. For me, personally, Pat Barker did something more interesting and more subversive with The Silence of the Girls: the dismissal of much of the mythologising in favour of the human and humane cost of the Trojan War; the character of Achilles, both terrifyingly violent and terrifyingly vulnerable. Circe was beautifully written but didn’t quite deal with those characters in ways which produced anything quite as new.
Perhaps a re-imagining rather than a re-creation? Whatever those terms mean! For me, perhaps, a worthy and glorious part of the longlist; perhaps not quite a book I would shortlist.
Both, however, are wonderful and clearly five-star reads!
Plot/ Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Date: 19th April 2018