My love of Madeline Miller- Circe and The Song of Achilles

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:

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.

Books I own and haven’t read yet (please help haha)

Over the past year I’ve actually done really well in my goal to read lots of new books and try to read lots of the books on my shelves (giving away the ones I don’t like). I have a bad habit of buying books- I do try to buy lots from charity shops- and whilst I read roughly 100 books a year, I LOVE the comfort and experiencing of rereading, so it can take me a long time to get round to all of my new books. I’d love to end 2020 with some reading highs (given the riot that the year has been otherwise hahaha), so I’m going to list the books that I own and haven’t read yet and I’d love your opinions on what books I should priories. 😊 Please, please let me know if you’ve read any of these and why you’d recommend them (or why you absolutely hated them). I have 20 books left to read to reach my yearly goal! (I’ve made the books that I’m currently most interested in reading bold).

  1. N-W- Zadie Smith
  2. Blonde Roots- Bernardine Evaristo
  3. The Remains of the Day- Kazuo Ishaguro
  4. The Mothers- Brit Bennett
  5. Calypso- David Sedaris
  6. The Sellout- Paul Beatty
  7. Northern Lights- Philip Pullman
  8. The Book of Dust- Philip Pullman
  9. Morbid Relations- Jonathan Whitelaw
  10. Theology and Works and Days- Hesiod
  11. The White Boy Shuffle- Paul Beatty
  12. Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian- Rick Riordan
  13. The Book of Strange Things- Michel Faber
  14. Under the Skin- Michel Faber
  15. The Republic- Plato
  16. Jesus: A Life- A. N. Wilson

Books that I’ve owned for at least a year (some are honestly 5+ years old hahaha):

17. George Harrison: Behind the locked door- Graeme Thomson

18. The Light Between Oceans- M L Steadman

19. The Wasp Factory- Iain Banks

20. The Understudy- David Nicholls

21. Lanark- Alasdair Gray

22. Them- Jon Ronson

23. The Trial- Franz Kafka

24. Being Elvis- Ray Connolly

25. The Post Birthday World- Lionel Shriver

26. The Secret Garden- Francis Hodgson Burnett

27. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- Stieg Larsson

28. Horns- Joe Hill

29. I am the Messenger- Markus Zusak

30. School Daze- Elaine McGeachy

31. The White Queen- Philippa Gregory

32. The Lost Books of the Odyssey- Zachary Mason

33. The Bluest Eye- Toni Morrison

34. The Miniaturist- Jessie Burton

35. David Bowie: A Life- Dylan Jones

36. The Lie Tree- Frances Hardinge

37. Casting Off- Elizabeth Jane Howard

38. All the Light We Cannot See- Anthony Doerr

39. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy- Douglas Adams

40. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest- Ken Kensey

41. Not the Life Imagined- Anne Pettigrew

42. Utopia for Realists- Rutger Bregman

43. American Gods- Neil Gaiman

44. The Elephant Keeper- Christopher Nicholson

45. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales- The Brothers Grimm

Oh dear, 45 hahaha. Although it was genuinely about 100 a couple of years ago. There are some on the list that I really should just give away, but I’m quite the hoarder and don’t want to miss out on a potentially interesting read. Also, I’ll definitely take into account any comments, but I’m such a mood reader so please, please don’t be offended if I end up reading completely different books haha! Also, I rarely know anything about authors so please let me know if any are a bit dodgy/controversial for any reason. I hope you’re well and have read great books so far this year! 😊

Goodreads 50 books to read before you die (part one)

I really liked doing this challenge for amazon books and people seemed to like reading it- it was really fun looking at the comments to see how many everybody has read!- so I’ve decided to do it again, it’s always fun to see if I’m influenced to read classics or popular books 😊

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee
  2. Pride and Prejudice- Jane Austen

I have read this book, but as I think I mentioned before this is one of the rare occasions where I enjoyed the film more (blasphemous hahaha but I do love the film). It wasn’t my favourite classic that I’ve read which is strange because I love the sisters, however, I think it felt a bit too long with sections about side characters that I didn’t really care about. Maybe if I reread it one day I’d enjoy it a little bit more.

3. Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte

This is maybe my favourite classic that I’ve read, I really like the story and enjoyed Jane as a character. I’d also like to mention here that I loved ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ which is loosely based on Jane Eyre, I’d recommend it!

4. The Great Gatsby- F. Scott Fitzgerald

I swear there is a ghost in my house because I read half of this book in the bath, came out of the bath and it was never seen again, I have searched my entire house and this book is gone hahaha. I will get it and finish it one day.

5. Lord of the Flies- William Golding

6. Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War- Sebastian Faulks

7. 1984- George Orwell

8. The Diary of a Young Girl- Anne Frank

This book is very impactful and emotional, however, the main thing that stuck out whilst reading this was the depths of kindness, love and positivity in Anne’s writing, she was incredibly hopeful despite her horrific circumstances and this is a loving, relatable book about growing up and family.

9. Brave New World- Aldous Huxley

10. The Grapes of Wrath- John Steinbeck

11. The Picture of Dorian Grey- Oscar Wilde

I really want to read this one day, this is high on my list of books I always say I’ll get to soon!

12. Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

This was not a favourite of mine hahaha, I struggled through this book. I was very intrigued by the intensity of Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship and I enjoyed the concept of the story, however, it dragged a bit without any ‘goodness’ or humour to balance. Again, I’m blasphemous and a very bad reader when it comes to classics, but I’d like to see a new big-budget film based on this book, I think I’d enjoy the story far more as a film.

13. The Bell Jar- Sylvia Plath

This book was difficult to read due to the themes and heavy depression weighing it down, however, I think this is an important book to read to understand mental illness and I would recommend The Bell Jar if you are okay with heavy themes.

14. The War of the World- H.G. Wells

15. The Quiet American- Graham Greene

16. The Catcher in the Rye- J.D Salinger

I really enjoyed this book, I read it this year and found it really easy to read and interesting (a few books are coming up that I’ve already mentioned in a blog post so I’m trying not to repeat myself too much).

17. A Passage to India- E.M Forster

18. Catch-22- Joseph Helle

19. Anna Karenina- Leo Tolstoy

I listened to a fair chunk of this audiobook but then I forgot about it (and the narrators voice annoyed me haha, I can be fussy with narrators). I would like to finish the book, but it’s been long enough that I’ve forgotten everything so I’d have to start from the beginning and make sure I read this book at a time when I can really concentrate on the story.

20. Frankenstein- Mary Shelley

This is another book that I read half of before stopping, I was sad because it’s such a well-known book but I just couldn’t keep going. I have such a thing about death and corpses, dead bodies etc so the creation of the monster in this book made me feel a bit ill hahaha, I honestly couldn’t keep reading. I’ve always been like this, I can’t read or watch anything with zombies without feeling sick.

21. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time- Mark Haddon

This is an unusual and interesting book, I’ve never read a book where the narrator has ASD and I found it very insightful. I’ve read a couple of Mark Haddon’s books and enjoy his dark humour and sarcasm.

22. Life of Pi- Yann Martel

I knew very little about this book and if you haven’t yet read it I’d go into it knowing nothing if you can. This stayed with me for such a long time and I felt almost a haunted feeling after reading it, it’s a very philosophical book, particularly around religion, and I’ve never really read anything like it.

23. The Count of Monte Cristo- Alexandre Dumas

24. Heart of Darkness- Joseph Conrad

25. Rebecca- Daphne De Maurier

I really enjoyed this book, the characters are a lil bit crazy and I didn’t necessarily feel for any of them but the gothic themes make it interesting and really envelop you in the plot and time period. I remember reading a wee short story called ‘The Drowned Rose’ for English in school and looking back I’m not sure if it’s based on Rebecca because there are lots of similarities. Please let me know if you’ve read it and know anything!

I’ve read 9 of 25 books and plan to read more, I really liked this list and I think I’d recommend all of the books I’ve read 😊 Please let me know how many you’ve read and if you’d recommend any, I loved reading the comments last time. Also, I’ve been thinking about diversity in reading as I think lots of us have at this time. There are several books on this list that I haven’t heard of so I’m unsure of the diversity of authors and characters on this list- based on gender, race and sexuality- but I look critically at lists like these in thinking about how books are chosen and the opportunities authors have. If you have read most of these books please enlighten me a little bit more about the spread of diversity.