"Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting," says the hero of Madeleine Miller's Circe, of her romance with the mortal Odysseus. Circe is referring to Homer's version of the story, in which Odysseus arrives on her island sea-battered and mourning for his men killed by the cruel Laestrygonians. Circe entraps his remaining men and turns them into pigs. But Odysseus, with the help of the god Hermes, tricks Circe and makes her beg for mercy before becoming her lover.
"I was not surprised by the portrait of myself," Circe says, "the proud witch undone before the hero's sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep."
Miller's lush, gold-lit novel — told from the perspective of the witch whose name in Greek has echoes of a hawk and a weaver's shuttle -- paints another picture: of a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it.
Though most of Circe's fame derives from her short encounter with Odysseus in Book 10 of the Odyssey, Miller's novel covers a longer and more complex life: her lonely childhood among the gods, her first encounter with mortals, who "looked weak as mushroom gills" next to the "vivid and glowing" divinities, the awakening of her powers, and finally, the men who wash up on her shores, souring her trust with their cruelty.
Circe is a nymph, daughter of the sun god Helios, banished to the island of Aiaia for using magic to turn a romantic rival into the monster Scylla. Alone, she begins to hone her craft. "For a hundred generations, I have walked the world, drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease," she thinks. "Then I learned I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt."
A classics teacher, Miller is clearly on intimate terms with the Greek poem. The character of Circe only occupies a few dozen lines of it, but Miller extracts worlds of meaning from Homer's short phrases. For instance, Homer cryptically describes Circe as having a "human voice," leading centuries of readers to wonder: What is a divine voice? Do the gods have a language? Miller makes Circe's human voice the beginning of a (fraught, because inherently temporary) kinship with mortals that is one of the novel's loveliest strains.
But my favorite of Miller's small recalibrations is less lofty: It has to do with Circe's hairdo. In Homer, Circe is identified with her "lovely braids." The usual scholarly gloss on this is that the braids signal not only beauty, but also exoticism, because Eastern goddesses wore their hair in braids. But in Circe, the braids come about in the first moments of the goddess's magical awakening, when she begins roaming the island to find ingredients for her spells: "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." It's a small detail, but it's the difference between a person of independence and skill, and some male dream of danger, foreignness, and sex, lounging with parted lips while she watches the horizon for ships.
"We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her," wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch. Why, she asks, do we never hear of another kind of love, which also "must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires" — a vocation? Circe insists that labor, as much as love, makes a life: "No wonder I have been so slow," she thinks when she discovers magic. "All this while, I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea." This Circe braids her hair because she has work to do.