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Circe vs The Song of Achilles in the 21st Century

3rd April, 2017

Book review : Circe by Madeline Miller

The literary world was in a state of constant buzz in anticipation of Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe. But I was a bit scared. Two reasons – I hadn’t read her much acclaimed The Song of Achilles and I didn’t know much about Greek myths. That familiar complex of ‘not having read what everyone has read and loved’ kept creeping in. But when an advanced reading copy of Circe landed on my door step, I couldn’t resist the temptation of picking it up. How can anyone not be mesmerised by that stunning cover! I jumped into the period of wars between men and gods straight away. And Circe kept me tightly bound in its spell till the very end, late into the night. The next night, I devoured The Song of Achilles. And the next night, I flitted through Google pages on Greek mythology.

Stories and myths

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of Homer’s Illiad through the love story between Achilles, the champion warrior, and Patroclus, his faithful companion. The story matures over the backdrop of the Trojan war. The novel branches out to accommodate the gods, men, war and love. The story is as much that of Patroclus as it is Achille’s. Circe is the retelling of the seductress and witch who lived in an isolated island and turns Odysseus’ men into pigs and later becomes his companion. Though the novel has its fair share of minor characters and sub plots, Circe holds the reign from start to the end and no one (not even Odysseus) steals her thunder.

Self discovery, love and betrayal

The Song of Achilles revolves around the love between Achilles and Patroclus while Circe starts on a case of unrequited love. When Patroclus comes to know that Achilles would be killed in the war according to the Fates, he tries to prevent the deaths that are fated before his so that Achilles never has to die. The novel is an exploration of two friends who become inseparable lovers. There are societal restraints that stand in the way of their love. As they grow older, different dilemmas taunt them – one of them ponders if he wants sons, one of them has fathered a son but doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, etc.

Circe traces the story of the young girl who wasn’t accepted by her parents or siblings. She discovers her skills at the brink of despair but the fates are cruel to her leading to her banishment to the island of Aiaia. Here, Circe tames wild animals, tames a wild land and perfects her occult craft. She goes through the stages of falling in love, being heart broken, being furious and being a mother in addition to becoming one of the most feared witches.

Celebration vs Isolation

A major portion of The Song of Achilles is set in the war of Troy. We see different shades of love and ego clutching Achilles and Patroclus which are crucial to the progress of the story. However in Circe, it is the isolation that adds to her glory. Circe’s banishment to the island of Aiaia breathes life into her spirit. She grows wise and skilled and challenges the what the ‘Fates’ had in store for her.

Madeline’s Achilles fulfils his destiny of being a celebrated war hero but it is her Circe who persists and fights her destiny. Achilles is destined to be a hero from the beginning of the novel. However Circe goes through a long process of self discovery. This seems to be a subtle jab at a society that lauds the achievements of men but paints ambitious women in  a different light.

Guaranteed to sweep you off your feet

Circe spans over many centuries and seamlessly moves between the world of gods and men. The Song of Achilles takes place over a shorter span of time. Both the novels have a wide array of minor characters, though again, the ones in Circe (Minotaur, Daedelus and Icarus) were dearer to me.

Glorifying a witch

It is no secret that the myths are partial to men. Men are glorified, their victories praised while women either adorn the role of the perfect companion or are cast as villains. Madeline gives a new voice to Circe. In the myths, she takes the place of a vengeful, lovelorn witch who bows down to Odysseus. But when given a chance to tell her story, she takes a different form altogether.  Madeline recently penned down an article for The Guardian questioning why assertive women are cast as witches, which is a very interesting read about the portrayal of strong women.

Circe reminded me of The Liberation of Sita by Volga where the often silent women (both heroines and demons) of the Indian epics are given a voice and asked to tell their story. Unlike Achilles, Circe writes her destiny. Her rising power earns the wrath of the gods which ultimately forces her to choose between divinity and the mortal world she has loved. But the most important thing that Madeline gives her Circe which perhaps the previous versions of male storytelling didn’t is ‘choice’; to be what what she chooses to be.

What to read first?

A frequently asked question about both the books is whether they should be read in the exact order in which they were published. No; I didn’t and I ended up enjoying both the books. Of course there are characters that appear in both the books but you can read either of them first.

Final Verdict :

I loved Circe more. It was thrilling, intoxicating and I felt a strange connection to the misunderstood witch. I would recommend both the reads but my heart rests with Circe. Madeline Miller is not a writer to be missed. But be warned, she has taken her liberties with reimagining the classics. Her novels are full of magic, love, betrayal, angst and bloodshed. Buy, borrow, steal; you need to read her books.

Title : Circe ||  The Song of Achilles
Author : Madeline Miller
Publisher : Bloomsbury
Publication: 2018 | 2011
Language : English
Pages : 333 ||  352
Rating : 5/5 ||  4.5/5

Disclaimer : Much thanks to Bloomsbury India for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.

Let's discuss

Have you read the books by Madeline Miller?

PS: Did you know Circe is pronounced ‘Keerkay’ and not ‘Surcee’?

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This Post Has 10 Comments
  1. I’ve just finished reading Circe and I enjoyed it more than The Song of Achilles too, although I think they are both great books. It seems I haven’t been pronouncing Circe’s name correctly either!

    1. The pronounciation was a surprise to me too. I read that Miller often pronounces the name wrong so as to not make the fans feel awkward. So I guess there are lots of us who like Circe with an ‘S’ better than a “K”

  2. I NEED to read these books! Though Circe appeals to me more I think, I need to get to it this month or the next. Awesome review of both these books, thank you!! And that photo, wow, such beauty!

  3. I haven’t read either of Madeline Miller’s novels, but I cannot wait to get to them at some point, I’ve only heard amazing things about them. I loved your post so much because it talked about both books all at once, it made me want to binge-read them back to back. 🙂

    1. Madeline Miller is such a talented writer. Circe is my favourite but both the books are great reads by themselves. I did a binge read too. Read Circe first and then Song of Achilles. Hope you love the books when you pick them up

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