Circe, minor goddess and powerful witch, is a compelling but mysterious figure in classical mythology. In Book X of The Odyssey she holds Odysseus not entirely against his will in her palace on the lion-infested island of Aiaia, where his men are briefly turned into swine by her enchantments. In Ovid’s The Metamorphoses she transforms a love rival, the nymph Scylla, into a sea monster, and in another tale she turns nasty when her love is spurned. In these glimpses, Circe is beautiful and vengeful, magnificent and petty, wise and cunning, one of the few females who can match wily Odysseus. When he finally goes on his way, it is with her powerful charms and advice.
Madeline Miller’s previous novel, The Song of Achilles, which won the Orange Prize in 2012, was an imaginative recasting of the love story of Achilles and Patroclus, taken from The Iliad. It’s not too surprising that for her second novel she turns again to Homer, The Odyssey this time, for inspiration. Miller sticks closely to the established story while filling in intriguing gaps: how did Circe get to Aiaia, and why such keenness for turning sailors into pigs?
Circe, the novel’s narrator, is the daughter of the sun god Helios, banished for eternity to a lonely island for practising pharmakeia, the magic of herbs. Her life there is lonely: although Aiaia is beautiful and fertile, it is isolated and out of bounds to anyone else. Circe’s only