Retelling and Balancing: Circe’s Journey from the Margins to the Center

Abigael Good

Parmigianino – Circe and the Companions of Ulysses

Madeline Miller has made a name for herself by retelling Greek myths;  she calls it literary adaptation or mythological realism. Her 2012 debut novel The Song of Achilles (Orange prize winner), retells an episode from the Iliad. Circe, published in 2018, is a retelling and expansion of the Odyssey from the perspective of Circe.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is a witch who lives on the island of Aiaia and turns visitors into beasts. She traps Odysseus’s men this way, but with his cleverness and help from the gods, Odysseus himself evades her tricks, frees his men, and wins her over. She is an important ally, telling him how to visit the underworld and return home. As the introduction to the RtB conversation with Miller puts it, though, she only has a “bit part.” Reflecting on her approach to retelling Circe’s story, Miller tells RtB, “I do feel like it’s a corrective in the sense that it’s a balancing […] We’ve had three thousand years of the male heroic tradition. Can we just pull on that a little bit, and bring the female voices up?”

Retellings are intensified stories. When you read a retelling, you read at least two stories at once, like the doubled vision of blurry eyes. Because of this, I was fascinated to see that Circe in Miller’s retelling has a similarly doubled vision of herself. She constantly sees herself as men see her, constantly hears her story as a man would tell it.

“I could imagine the stories he was telling of me, humorless, prickly, and smelling of pigs,” Circe says after sending Hermes away from her island. She is well aware of the stereotypes she inhabits, steps around, plays into and is forced into. They have become the lenses through which she views herself, and therefore limit the ways she can imagine herself being. She is haunted by the way others will tell her story.

This haunting comes out in her conversation with Hermes, when he tells her of all the sailors Scylla kills—these are all deaths that weigh on Circe’s conscience, because she made Scylla a monster. Hermes waits for Circe’s reaction, waits for her to fall into one predestined role or another— will she be “skimmed milk for crying, or a harpy with a heart of stone”? She knows what her choices are, and she knows whichever reaction she gives him will be slotted neatly into his telling of this moment. “There was nothing between. Anything else did not fit clearly in the laughing tale he wanted to spin of it.”

Circe’s awareness of how Hermes casts her in his stories is connected to the retelling of all stories. There are multiple Circes across mythology, in Homer and Ovid and the Argonautica. And by the same token, there are multiple Circes within Miller’s telling, a fracturing of self that Circe the character herself experiences. There is the Circe in Hermes’ telling (“a bitch with a cliff for a heart,”) the Circe in an imagined song’s framing (“the goddess on her lonely promontory,”) and even the Circe in an unskilled poet’s singing (“the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword.”) Herself a character within an epic, Circe is intimately familiar with the ways of storytellers: “humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets,” she says. Circe is trapped in one cliché after another: the pathetic lover, the woman scorned, the evil witch.

What kind of break from the Homeric tradition would have to occur for Circe to become, Odysseus-like, the story’s center? Miller’s Circe is able to escape those treacherous, too-tight options by asserting that “Those could not still be the only choices.” She has to stop viewing herself through the roles the epic tradition has carved out for female characters–to claim for herself the complexity and agency given to male characters. After leaving her island to right the mistake of her youth and kill Scylla, Circe is able to experience “that pleasure the bards sing of so often: homecoming.” That is, she finally gets to fill the traditional role of the hero for a moment, instead of the bit part of witch. To me, this is the crux of the kind of story Circe is. She moves from the margins of a heroic story to the center of one.

Circe – photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron (c.1870) Metropolitan Museum

The doubled reading experience of a retelling brings to mind fanfiction, and the unending operation of multiplication it performs. Fanfiction is usually defined as fiction based on a previously existing story created by someone else, what is known as the “canon” work. When you read fanfiction, as when you read a retelling, you read more than one story. By this I mean both that there can be tens, hundreds, or thousands of versions of one story perpetuated by different fanfictions published by fans, and also that when you read any one fanfiction, you read both it and the gap between it and the canon.

One could argue that any retelling is fanfiction–many articles do just that. But I think that oversimplifies the genre of fanfiction. Fanfiction is defined by its unwholeness. It is fundamentally written to supplement  a “more official” canon text. Fanfiction proclaims its own lack of authority, its invalidity. To use a science-fiction analogy that has been rolling around my head lately, fanfiction is the timeline that diverges when a time traveler makes a change. Fanfiction is the illegitimate timeline, recognized as a deviation rather than as a course correction.

Miller’s Circe asserts its own right to be “canon,” which makes it distinct from fanfiction hosted on sites like Archive of Our Own (where hundreds of Circe-themed works can however be found, as well as more than 20 based on Miller’s version). Being published as a book which costs money rather than on a free online archive is part of that claim; so is writing the story so that it is understandable to those who have not read the Odyssey; so is the book’s interrogation of the many ways Circe’s story might be told. As Miller says, Circe is “a balancing.”

To weigh on the other side of the scale from the Odyssey, Circe has to assert itself as an equally valid telling of the story. It cannot reside in the unauthorized space of fanfiction–a space still underanalyzed for its artistic possibilities–because fanfiction is the margins. To Miller, by contrast, Circe’s story needs to take up the same space as Odysseus’s does. Like Circe the character finding a place in the center of the story, Circe the book subverts by taking center stage.

Circe and Odysseus in a German translation of Giovanni Boccaccio‘s De claris mulieribus , printed by Johannes Zainer, Ulm, 1474.

Work cited:

Miller, Madeline. Circe. New York: Little Brown & Company, 2018.

Abigael Good is a graduating senior at Brandeis University, majoring in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Judaic Studies. She loves retellings and exploring the storytelling potential of fanfiction.

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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