In 2018, Madeline Miller published her novel Circe, telling the story of the mythological figure of the same name, is not without its faults, but is overall educational and a forward step for literature based in ancient stories.
Circe reads in the style of epic poetry such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey convincingly, made clear by the accuracy of the rambling, homeric style of the text’s details.
Though not entirely unique in this aspect, Circe is one of the first novels to follow such a style with a female protagonist following a historically accurate story. Circe manages to be both the hero of Miller’s epic poem and to raise a child, run a household, and take pride in domestic life.
“Hard work is epic, a key part of how we’re able to live and go on in the world,” said Miller.
However, though true to the original texts in story, Miller’s novel strays more from source material than her previous work, The Song of Achilles.
“There’s always a push and pull for me between academics and creativity. But with Circe, I really had to give myself permission to say ‘this is my version.’ My version diverged defiantly at times,” said Miller.
Miller elaborated, saying that she was surprised by how her novel was received by the classics community. However, for those who have read Circe, this is far from a reach.
Circe, in its attempt to mirror homeric texts, is cyclical and seems to lack plot. While this is one of Miller’s greatest strengths in writing books intended for fans of the original texts to enjoy, it is her greatest weakness when adapting ancient stories to the modern day.
The Iliad is, in certain translations, up to 600 pages of text with 153 named characters. It has been affectionately referred to as monstrous in size and difficulty.
It is epic poems such as these that Miller adapts into modern texts with an audience of young adults.
The sheer volume of these texts and how little time there is to spare on the minor characters Miller makes her focus is daunting enough, but the greatest challenge presents itself in translating a story only written down after hundreds of years of oral tradition into a story that will make sense with modern cultural norms.
The cyclical nature of Circe’s plot is completely accurate in regarding the texts from which it is based. However, it is the most glaring example of these cultural gaps. While the structure of Circe would be considered expected in its based time period, it seems dragging and slow in the modern day.
Miller’s novel, however, is not without its major positives.
Circe is clearly the product of precarious effort. The novel reads like a meticulous work of art, and never feels rushed or underplanned.
“I basically rewrote the same 50 pages 50 times during those years,” said Miller. By “those years” Miller refers to the “five years it took me to hear her [Circe’s] voice.”
This “feminist slant on The Odyssey,” as it was described by The Guardian reviewer Alex Preston, was published just shortly after the first major translation of The Odyssey by a woman, Emily Watson.
Miller balances the fence between retroactively empowering a female lead from a deeply male-centric period of art and writing a story intended to be popular in the modern day carefully. Through the heroic take on the domestic life of women, Miller finds empowerment in historical fact, and proves that empowerment and domesticity need not exist without one another.