The archaeological evidence is sketchy, but the first pussy hat was probably knitted by Circe. Among nasty women, the witch of Aeaea has held a place of prominence since Homer first sang of her wiles. For most of us, that was a long time ago — 700 B.C. or freshman English — but popular interest in “The Odyssey” picked up last fall when Emily Wilson published the first English translation by a woman. Wilson, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, described Circe as “the goddess who speaks in human tongues” and reminded us that what makes this enchantress particularly dangerous is that she is as beautiful as she is powerful.
That combination of qualities has excited male desire and dread at least since Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. On papyrus or Twitter, from Olympus to Hollywood, we have a roster of handy slurs and strategies to keep women caught between Scylla and Charybdis: either frigid or slutty, unnaturally masculine or preternaturally sexless, Lady Macbeth or Mother Mary.
Now, into that ancient battle — reinvigorated in our own era by the #MeToo movement — comes an absorbing new novel by Madeline Miller called “Circe.” In his 1726 translation of “The Odyssey,” Alexander Pope claimed that Circe possessed an “adamantine heart,” but Miller finds the goddess’s affections wounded, complicated and capable of extraordinary sympathy. And to anyone who thinks that women can be shamed into silence, this witch has just one thing to say: “That’ll do, pig.”
Miller is something of a literary sorceress herself. As a 39-year-old Latin teacher, she created an international sensation in 2011 with her debut novel, a stirring reimagining of “The Iliad” called “The Song of Achilles.” It’s a pleasure to see that same transformative power directed at Circe, the woman who waylaid Odysseus and his men as they sailed home to Ithaca.
“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist,” Circe begins at the start of a story that will carry us across millennia. Although she writes in prose, Miller hews to the poetic timber of the epic, with a rich, imaginative style commensurate to the realm of immortal beings sparked with mortal sass. Circe’s father, Helios, lives in a palace of “polished obsidian . . . the stone floors smoothed by centuries of divine feet.” She describes a royal court just beyond the edge of physical possibility: “The whole world was made of gold. The light came from everywhere at once, his yellow skin, his lambent eyes, the bronze flashing of his hair. His flesh was hot as a brazier, and I pressed as close as he would let me, like a lizard to noonday rocks.”
In this fully re-created childhood, Miller finds the roots of Circe’s later personality and isolation. Mocked by her far more majestic family, Circe is a kind of Titanic Jane Eyre, sensitive and miserable, but nursing an iron will. (She also develops an acerbic sense of humor: Her father, she tells us, is “a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.”) Although her relatives disparage her, Circe cultivates the occult arts that will one day shock them. “I had begun to know what fear was,” she tells us. “What could make a god afraid? I knew that answer too. A power greater than their own.”
While working within the constraints of the “The Odyssey” and other ancient myths, Miller finds plenty of room to weave her own surprising story of a passionate young woman banished to lavish solitude. “To be utterly alone,” Circe scoffs. “What worse punishment could there be, my family thought, than to be deprived of their divine presence?” But her bravado is short-lived. “The still air crawled across my skin and shadows reached out their hands. I stared into the darkness, straining to hear past the beat of my own blood.” In that extremity, Circe discovers the labor and, eventually, the power of witchcraft.
A protagonist, even a fascinating one, stuck alone in the middle of nowhere poses special narrative challenges, but Miller keeps her novel filled with perils and romance. She’s just as successful recounting far-off adventures — such as the horror of the Minotaur — as she is reenacting adventures on the island. In the novel’s most unnerving encounter, young Medea stops by mid-honeymoon fresh from chopping up her brother. Chastened by bitter experience, Circe offers her niece wise counsel, but you know how well that turns out.
Which is one of the most amazing qualities of this novel: We know how everything here turns out — we’ve known it for thousands of years — and yet in Miller’s lush reimagining, the story feels harrowing and unexpected. The feminist light she shines on these events never distorts their original shape; it only illuminates details we hadn’t noticed before.
That theme develops long before Odysseus and his men arrive, as the novel explores the prevalence and presumption of rape. Again and again, sailors land upon Circe’s shore and violate her hospitality so grotesquely that she’s forced to develop her infamous potions and spells. “The truth is,” she says ruefully, “men make terrible pigs.” Considering the treatment she has received, we can’t blame her for concluding, “There were no pious men anymore, there had not been for a long time.”
Of course, her grim appraisal is a perfect introduction for Odysseus. He doesn’t arrive on Aeaea until more than halfway through the novel, but then Miller plays their verbal sparring with a delightful mix of wit and lust. The affection that eventually develops between them is intriguingly complex and mature — such a smart revision of the misogynist fantasy passed down from antiquity:
“Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting,” Circe tells us. “I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
There will be plenty of weeping later in this novel, although it’s likely to be your own. In the story that dawns from Miller’s rosy fingers, the fate that awaits Circe is at once divine and mortal, impossibly strange and yet entirely human.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
On April 18 at 7 p.m., Madeline Miller will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. politics-prose.com.
By Madeline Miller
Little, Brown. 393 pp. $27