Tag Archives: ancient greece in fiction

Reading History: “Circe” (by Madeline Miller)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

When I had finished The Song of Achilles, I felt bereft. Here was this extraordinary author who managed to hit all the right notes I look for in historical fiction, and now I had nothing more to look forward to! Fortunately for me, Madeline Miller had just released a new book, Circe, and I devoured it even more quickly than I had her debut novel.

While Song had touched me because of its sensitive yet frank depiction of physical and emotional love between two men, Circe was something else, a tale of one woman’s desire to both understand and, ultimately, become the mortals whom she has spent so many hours and encounters, both good and bad. It is a novel about the nature of mortality and the burdens associated with being a child of the gods, at once a story of tremendous suffering and exquisite love.

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios, but from the beginning she feels that she is not like the other petty gods and Titans that surround her. When she discovers that she actually has magical abilities, the stage is set for a confrontation with her fellow immortals and, ultimately, her father. She is ultimately banished to  a distant island, where Circe encounters many of the famous figures of mythology, including Jason and Medea, the wily hero Odysseus and, eventually, his son Telemachus. As the years go by, she feels herself increasingly drawn to these mortals until, as the novel reaches its conclusion, she must decide whether she will become one of them or retain her immortality.

It’s always a challenge (I think) to write a convincing fictional account of the ancient pantheon that isn’t simply a parody or attempts to poke fun at the gods that we (in a world that still straddles the line between scientific rationalism and Christianity) see as little more than fairy tales. Fortunately, Miller has a knack for conveying the gods in a way that makes them both utterly realistic and yet fantastic at the same time. Her Olympians are, I think, very much in keeping with what the Greeks themselves imagined, full of spite and cruelty, yet also inescapably compelling.

As she did in The Song of Achilles, Miller manages to capture the beautiful yet brutal world that emerges from the words of the ancient Greeks. When Circe wanders through the halls of her father’s palace, or when she embraces the lonely bleakness of her isle, Miller allows us deep, piercing glimpses of these places as Circe herself would see them. In the process, we come to not only understand the woman herself, but also to appreciate the lushness of the prose through which that experience is conveyed.

Circe shares with Song a deep, rich awareness of the power of language to move us, to make us look at and think about the world in new, exciting and (sometimes) uncomfortable ways. Like Mary Renault–with whom she is often compared–Miller has the knack for conveying the foreignness of the ancient world that does not efface or detract from its ability to draw us into it.

Circe, however, is in many ways a very different novel than its predecessor, if only because it seems so focused (refreshingly) on a woman (even if she is a demigoddess). Circe is far from perfect, and Miller doesn’t try to idealize her. She is rebellious, prone to making foolish decisions,  and, despite her divine parentage, fundamentally curious about the mortals that the gods have in their thrall. Indeed, it is her desire to understand humans–in all of their beauty and ugliness, their loves and their hates, their kindness and their cruelty–that allows her to keep going despite all of the betrayals and heartbreak she faces.

And that, to me, is the novel’s fundamental purpose: to probe at what it is that makes us human. Because of her quasi-divine status, Circe has a perspective on the foibles of mortals that we lack, simply because we are imprisoned within our own perspectives. More than that: we are imprisoned in time. Circe recognizes that the one thing that humanity cannot escape is its mortality, and it is the one thing that will always structure (and doom) her relationships with her mortal lovers. While she is fated to continue marching through this world, she must contend with the inescapable fact of losing them.

Ultimately, it is this focus on mortality that gives Circe’s decision to abrogate her immortality and use her magic to become one of them. One can debate whether her choice to do so undercuts her power as a strong female character, but to me that rather misses the point. By the end of the novel, Circe has seen enough of the cruelties of the gods to know that she no longer wants to be one of their company, and she has at last found a man who will love her as she deserves to be loved. The fact that he is a mortal finally forces her to make the choice that seemed obvious from the very beginning. In the end, Circe becomes a mortal not just because she loves Telemachus, but because she finally recognizes that humans have an ability for compassion that the gods simply cannot. It is this recognition, even more than her love that ultimately drives her to give up her immortality.

And now that I’ve finished Miller’s sophomore effort, I think I feel even more devastated than I did when I finished, knowing that it was going to be quite a while before I saw something else from this very talented author of historical fiction. All I can say is that Circe is a must-read for anyone who loves the ancient world and its reception in the modern one. With this book, Madeline Miller shows that she truly deserves recognition as one of the finest historical novelists writing today.

I just hope that we don’t have to wait too long for Miller to offer us more of her inimitable vision.

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Reading History: “The Conqueror’s Wife” (Stephanie Thornton)

As readers of this blog know, I have a voracious appetite for historical fiction set in the ancient world. Fortunately for me, Stephanie Thornton has again released a fantastic tale, this time focused on the men and women surrounding that most powerful of ancient generals, Alexander the Great.  With The Conqueror’s Wife, Thornton takes her place alongside Mary Renault as one of the handful of writers who has a strong grasp of the effect Alexander had on those who surrounded him.

The novel follows the fortunes of four primary characters:  Drypetis, younger daughter of Darius III; Thessalonike, the half-sister of Alexander; Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover and best friend; and Roxana, Alexander’s conniving yet beautiful first wife and mother of his child Alexander IV. They each find themselves caught up in the powerful, overwhelming personality that was Alexander the Great.

Through some strange skill known only to her, Thornton manages to make Roxana, certainly one of the novel’s most vicious and bitter characters, into an understandable figure. We see through her eyes as she suffers first the brutal punishments of her cruel and uncaring father and then the depravity of the usurper Bessus, before finally becoming the original Queen of Queens to Alexander. Her position remains unstable, though, and becomes all the more so after the conqueror marries the royal Stateira and then dies of a fever. Desperate to retain her status, Roxana resorts to ever more desperate measures, and while we are led to feel revulsion at her increasing bitterness and cruelty, we also understand their source. She recognizes the cruel necessity that her body is her key to power, even as she grows to hate (at least at a subconscious level) what she has gradually become.

Roxana’s fellow Persian, Drypetis, could not be more different. She yearns to understand what makes things work, and her restless desire for more knowledge keeps her going even through the hardest moments of her life. She gradually endues the loss of almost everyone that she cares for, from her father Darius to her husband and true love Hephaestion.

Thessalonike is in many ways the twin of Drypetis. Both are royal young women who are exceptional in that they do not fit comfortably into the roles expected of them.  Thessalonike yearns to be a fighter and a warrior like her elder brother,while Drypetis has a mind for mechanical things.  Neither is willing to let the limitations imposed on their gender keep them from doing what they want, and both are fiercely loyal to their families. Unfortunately, they both also find themselves subject to powers greater than they are, and both experience unimaginable loss.

Fortunately, they also find strength in one another. As two of the fortunate survivors of both Alexander’s reign and the bloodbath that followed his death, they are able to find solace and power in the companionship that they have so long been denied. It is a fitting reminder of the intensity of the relationships that often emerge between and among women.

Finally, we come to Hephaestion. He has always been an ambiguous character in much historical fiction, given the fact that many authors prefer to refer to him as Alexander’s “best friend” or some equally innocuous term. Thornton cuts through all of that and makes it clear that the bond between Alexander and Hephaestion was deeply passionate and intensely sexual. While the novel does not go into too much detail about the mechanics, it also does not leave any doubt that, even after many years, the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion was almost certainly still sexual and that they really did love one another with a power beyond that of mere friendship.

Thornton paints a compelling and visceral portrait of a dark and brutal world. She doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to portraying both the grit and gore of the battlefield, as well as the equally bloody and dangerous worlds of the bedroom and the political arena. All of the characters find themselves forced do things that they would rather avoid, and they have to live with the scars that these actions inflict on their psyches.

There are two casualties of the novel, Alexander and his mother Olympias. Unfortunately for Olympias, her actions–most of which had at least some measure of justification given the dark and tumultuous times in which she lived–do not lend themselves to sympathetic portrayal. For my part, I did feel a pang of sympathy for her when Cassander at last outmaneuvers her and has her stoned to death. This, after all, was a woman who managed to survive everything thrown her way, only to at last meet the most ignominious of deaths. But, I have to admit, she makes a compelling villain.

As for Alexander, the novel paints him as something of an egomaniac (as he probably was), and in that sense is a useful corrective to some of the more hagiographical approaches of other authors. Much as I love Renault, she tends to gloss over some of Alexander’s more glaring faults. Thornton shows Alexander as an undeniable genius, one of those rare leaders who combined phenomenal charisma and military acumen with more than a touch of madness.

Thornton does an excellent job, as always, of painting exquisite portraits of the conflicted and compelling personalities that had an enormous impact upon the world in which they lived. I cannot wait until she reveals the subject of her next novel.