After rereading Circe and Song of Achilles this month I felt like I wanted a rambling little post to remember the way I feel about these books. Apart from a few books I vaguely remember years ago, Madeline Miller’s were the first Greek myth retellings I read. I first read Circe in summer 2019, choosing it without knowing anything about it firstly for the beautiful cover and then because it mentioned Greece where I was lucky enough to be going on holiday. So, on a beach in Crete feeling truly enveloped in the setting, I started the book which has spiralled me into an intense mythological fascination. I’m lucky enough to now own over 20 mythological books and I think I’ve read over 30, with each bringing more intrigue rather than any sort of feeling that I’ve ‘overdone’ it.
I absolutely love rereading books, arguably more than reading new books. As a nostalgic, semi-routine enjoying person, my favourite books bring feelings of comfort and warmth (almost said joy but I will leave the Christmas ramblings for another couple of months). Within two years, I’m usually ready to reread an old book and bring myself back into the memories and emotions that came with it. A year plus of a pandemic and two years in Scottish weather have undoubtedly contributed to my desire to reread Circe, a book which I now associate with the warmth and sea breeze of its origin country.
Madeline Miller has received lots and lots of praise and hype, which in her case I think is truly deserved. To explain why, I’ll now try to get on to the actual books and stop the rambling. Paralleling the order in which I originally read them, I’ll start with Circe:
‘’In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is a strange child – not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. Scorned and rejected, Circe grows up in the shadows, at home in neither the world of gods or mortals. But Circe has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When her gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone will never be left in peace for long – and among her island’s guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything. So Circe sets forth her tale, a vivid, mesmerizing epic of family rivalry, love and loss – the defiant, inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright through the darkness of a man’s world.’’ (Circe synopsis)
The writing in Circe flows so well. It’s beautiful and intricate, feeling very detailed and powerful whilst also being very easy to read: my favourite mix. Whilst focusing on Circe, her story weaves in other myths and we meet different famous or infamous characters. This felt interesting and natural to me, where it sometimes felt forced in other retellings. I’ve mentioned before that whilst I enjoyed some retellings including Ariadne, they felt almost stretched- as though they tried to do too much with too little source material. Miller manages to create full and meaningful depictions that interested and engaged me whilst feeling almost real in a way (this is a good time to mention that these are all my own random lil opinions and not necessarily correct). I love that in Circe, Greek terms and words are used (I was going to say that the reader learns Greek words, but I have a shocking memory for languages) and that so many of my favourite books are taken from Greek mythologies. For example, in my blog post called A Song of Ice and Fire Norse and Greek mythology parallels, I noted the parallels between GRRM’s Cersei and the Circe in this story. These were only basic thoughts and parallels from the endless ones to be found. I think parallels are one of the reasons I love mythology so much; rather than feeling frustrated that I’ll never realise them all, I love knowing that I’ll learn new things and feel excited every day I read a retelling.
Song of Achilles
‘’Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.’’ (Song of Achilles synopsis)
Being the second myth retelling that I read (and remember), this book was my first experience of the Trojan War. I will say, this led to me feeling quite disillusioned about Achilles when I then went on to read any other account of his personality hahaha. I am glad to note that Patroclus remains one of the few genuinely good characters in any depictions he features in, I love him. Throughout this story I really felt the urgency, passion and struggle that these characters experience and whilst I didn’t cry, I felt very moved by Patroclus and Achilles story; I also love a book that really makes me feel the tension that the characters are feeling, and the cave parts of this book did it so well. Maybe I’m biased, but while I appreciate all retellings, I far prefer the stories that depict Patroclus and Achilles as a couple, and I do feel that the source material heavily hints this. Accounts that deny these characters as lovers give me strong ‘historians will say they were good friends’ vibe hahaha.
I love Miller’s narrative choices- whilst featuring some of the most famous characters, namely Odysseus and Achilles, she chooses to read about the lesser known or rather lesser heard characters of Circe and Patroclus and gives them such a full, interesting voice. Miller may almost romanticise characters, but in a mythological world of absolute horrors, I appreciate these depictions; particularly as these myths are just that- stories passed down for us to imagine and reimagine.
Themes and comparison
On both first read and reread I’ve binged Miller’s books one after the other, which naturally leads me to compare and wonder which is my favourite. The answer is that I truly cannot decide. Both times, I’ve tentatively said that Song of Achilles just has the edge, but I genuinely feel that this is just because it was fresher in my mind. I love both for such different reasons and feel that they compliment each other almost as a duology. I will say that at times both felt slightly slow on my first read- Circe because it spans such a long time and Achilles because of such a heavy war plot. On rereading, I didn’t experience this feeling at all and read both books over 4 days. I think this is because I now have a better knowledge of the myths and endless characters featuring throughout. Despite saying this, I would 100% recommend these books as a starting place into the world of Greek mythology.
The pacing and writing style is something that I found very interesting whilst reading; Miller’s writing has objectively improved by Circe- whilst still being very accessible, it’s much more intricate than Song of Achilles. I do, however, think this is almost done purposefully; Circe is a complex Goddess with eons of time to pace out her life and develop her craft. She is also frequently lonely and lost. The pacing of this story heavily reflects Circe’s mindset and the timespan it follows- at times peaceful, at others almost stilted. The latter part, for example, felt more frantic to me and fast paced as Circe raised her restless, energetic mortal son. Song of Achilles, felt in comparison urgent and fast paced- for lack of another phrase, it felt very human. The characters are passionate and young and energetic, whilst facing the philosophies of a good life, and the loss and grief that comes with the prophesised early death. In saying that, the writing style also parallels Patroclus- human and simplistic as opposed to Circe’s intricate wisdom. I cannot decide which I liked more, I just hope I am projecting how much I truly love these books and would recommend them.
I was also very interested in the themes of humanity throughout both books. Whilst feeling so different and focusing on very different life experiences, both books centre around humanity and what it feels to be human, or at least what it feels to find a purpose in life. I loved Circe’s inner monologues depicting the Gods and her own distance towards her immortality, ultimately choosing her own life and embracing the paradoxical simplistic yet vivid and vital human life span.
“I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”
This contrasts Achilles, and therefore Patroclus choice to forgo a peaceful life to engage in ‘heroic’ acts and the form of immortality that surrounds them. These books have philosophical undertones due to Miller’s choice to write from the perspective of very thoughtful, very human characters. It is this that has led to these stories becoming some of my favourites; themes of humanity, purpose, life and loss are always my favourites.
“True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” “We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory.’’
“I think: this is what I will miss. I think: I will kill myself rather than miss it. I think: how long do we have?”
I genuinely put off writing this because I wasn’t sure what I would say and now I have absolutely rambled on, hahaha. Thank you so much if you’ve read all of this, please let me know your own thoughts on these books. I’ll end by saying, Miller has become one of my favourite writers because she introduced me to mythology and I’ve yet to find a retelling that I’ve enjoyed or felt more from than hers. I loved experiencing these stories the first time and learning; I now love them in a different way. Rereading was so exciting because I know understand the references, know more about the characters and I can see what I’ve learned. These books reignited my love of learning in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. Things like Uni didn’t really work for me. I’m not an academic, whilst I got the degree, I genuinely cannot think of much I learned from Uni due to the nature of cramming for exams and writing essays on areas I didn’t find interesting. Reading is a greater form of learning for me personally, and in mythology I’ve found books that match my personality and interests exactly- comfort and familiarity of a world and characters I’m starting to know, whilst always allowing for new material and things to learn.