[I read this 2018 novel in three sections, writing about what I had read in each section before reading further. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
11 January 2022
This is another in what is becoming a long line of versions of ancient stories of the Patriarchy, re-told from the point of view of one of the women involved. Or, in this case, a minor goddess, because that’s what Circe is. She is born of a Titan—one of the precursors of the Olympian gods, and still powerful rivals—and her mother is the daughter of a sea-god. And… it’s OK. Circe, not hugely attractive in goddess terms and endlessly snubbed and bullied by two of her much more glamorous siblings, has to find a role for herself in her father’s underground ‘halls.’ For most of the first few chapters it’s like the shy high-school kid trying to avoid the attention of the bitchy popular girls—I mean, that’s exactly what it’s like, and I’ll come back to that.
But once Miller gets her away from the surprisingly claustrophobic atmosphere there, the story ambles along well enough. Circe meets Glaucos, a mortal fisherman, and is taken by surprise by his adulation of her. She likes it and, over time, gets to know him and, she thinks, falls in love. She helps him in his mortal struggles with hunger and debt, by way of a one-off favour from her sea-goddess grandmother, on condition that she doesn’t ‘lie’ with him. Glaucos is full of gratitude for the way his miraculous catch has got rid of all his current difficulties… but Circe is a beginner in these high-stakes dealings with powers beyond her own. She now wants him more than ever, but knows she can’t possibly renege on her promise not to lie with a mortal. The only way she can think of to make Glaucos immortal would be by using a kind of magic that she has vaguely heard of. Flowers on which the blood of gods has fallen have special powers, and she asks around the halls so she can pinpoint where a couple of recent Titan/Olympian fights took place. (I’m not making this up.) She arrives at one of the places, gathers the flowers, and squeezes their sap into Glaucos’s mouth as he takes his usual afternoon nap…
…and it’s a game-changer. It’s also a changer in a different way—as she almost unwittingly wishes for what she wants, he turns into a powerful sea-god. He also—wouldn’t you just know it?—instantly develops the monumental male arrogance of all the other gods she’s been brought up around. She should be careful what she wishes for in future, because clearly this pharmaka, this herbal magic, isn’t as straightforward as she had thought. There’s a lesson for her there, you would think.
Except you’d think wrong, because the experience has taught her nothing. I suppose that for the story to work, Miller has to make her heroine make a whole series of wrong moves. Back in the halls, she moons around near her new god, who is becoming more and more self-obsessed by the day. As time goes on, she is the last to realise that he has no interest in her—everybody considers her to be one of the least attractive nymphs in the place, and mocks her thin, scratchy voice. And now they mock her naivety. She’s dreaming of marriage, but when the best-looking, and most bitchy girl in the high school tells her a wedding is definitely going to happen, she also tells her the bride-to-be isn’t Circe. It’s going to be Scylla of course, the bitchy one who’s telling her this. What’s Circe going to do? Tell the now super-vain Glaucos he’s chosen the one who’s been around the block more than any of them? The fact that it’s true wouldn’t help, because it would look like jealousy. We’ve seen those movies….
Yes, we have, so we know it’s time for the mousy little wallflower to get mad. She does the thing with the sap of a bunch of those flowers, this time going to where Scylla takes her daily swim, pouring the mixture into the waters and calling on Scylla’s true self to be revealed. She doesn’t see the outcome herself, and hears nothing more about it at first. But then, as her godly Aunt Selene tells her and her cousins what she’s seen, suddenly we’re in a Harry Potter movie. ‘A hideous leg. Like a squid’s, boneless and covered in slime … burst from her belly, and another burst beside it, and more and more, until there were twelve all dangling from her. … She was bucking, her shoulders writhing. Her skin turned grey and her neck began to stretch. From it tore five new heads, each filled with gaping teeth. …And all the while, she was baying and howling, barking like some wild pack of dogs.’
Oh. Circe hadn’t expected such a result. She’d just thought Scylla’s veneer of beauty might be tarnished, but this behemothic monstrosity is a surprise. ‘It felt impossible to picture the horror Selene described. To make myself believe: I did that.’ Luckily, nobody suspects her—and nobody sheds any tears either. ‘My cousins gasped, but the sound was distant, like far-off waves.’ Even Glaucos gets over it as soon as he realises—I can’t remember who reminds him—there are plenty of others where Scylla came from. The gods, including Helios, her father, decide it was simply fate that Scylla’s true nature came to be revealed, and Circe behaves as naively as ever. She, his least favourite child, has the temerity to tell him, in public, that he is wrong. She tells him she has enough skill in the arts of pharmaka to have brought about two transformations herself. Scylla and Glaucos both.
Oh dear. Nobody can talk like that to one of the most powerful Titans of them all—he’s the one who drives his sun-chariot across the sky every day—and she’s going to be punished. Like Prometheus, she muses—I’ll come back to him—and wonders what it will feel like to have her liver chewed out every day for all eternity. But it isn’t that at all. It’s exile, to an uninhabited island—and when she gets there she has a big house and magically self-replenishing stocks of everything she might ever need. This is Madeline Miller having to cut her narrative to the cloth of classical mythology—Circe doesn’t live on a bare rocky outcrop in the stories, but in a well-appointed villa. So she, Miller, has Helios punish her only according to the letter of negotiations he’s had with Zeus, the top Olympian, for her transgressions, but there’s nothing stopping him looking after her once she’s there.
What’s she going to do there? Well, the story Miller is working with is of Circe the sorceress, so the rookie herbalist has a long way to go. But her younger brother—I haven’t mentioned him, but before he became a powerful god she used to look after him—tells her before the public sentencing, that the whole family have a way with pharmaka. She’ll never be as good as him, he’s quick to tell her, in fact he was a natural from childhood and only hid it from her to avoid hurting her feelings… but she’ll learn. Which she does. It takes her years to learn her trade—her brother had told her that her powers are real, but limited compared to his, and she can only develop them through her own experiments—but she gets to be pretty good.
And that’s the set-up, I’m guessing, for the rest of the novel. We’re in Chapter 7 now, of the eleven I’ve read, and the only company she ever gets, apart from the island’s boar population and other wild animals—she’s like Snow White with them—is Hermes. He drops by occasionally for casual sex and to pass on the gossip, and tells her when she needs to get ready for something. Like, one day a hero called Odysseus will sail by and she should be prepared. But first, her horrible sister Pasiphae on Crete, the one who married King Minos, needs her help. We know all about Pasiphae’s epic cruelty and arrogance—she seems to share this with most of the minor gods and goddesses that Circe has to deal with—and she has ordered that the ship sent to take her will have to sail via the straits guarded by the six-headed monster Circe knows all about. Scylla always manages to pick off at least half-a-dozen men from any passing ship, and this detail fills Circe with a sense of guilt. The man leading the trip is the famous Daedalus, the most famous artist and engineer in the world, and she has to use all the magic she has, including taking on the form of a man for a short while, in order to get them past Scylla without loss. These Greek stories are always full of incident.
Pasiphae is very heavily pregnant, and forces Circe to help in the delivery. Daedalus is on hand to cut open the womb, but it is Circe who has to reach in—and the new-born bites several of her fingers off. (Don’t worry, they’ll grow back. But they’ll sting for a while.) The blood-crazed infant is the creature we know will grow into the Minotaur, the outcome of a one-night stand with an attractive white bull Pasiphae liked the look of. It took a lot of careful work by Daedalus, reduced to the role of her chief fixer because, we later discover, his son is a kind of hostage there. Her sister wants her to remain too, but can’t make her. But Miller can offer any romantically-inclined readers a heart-warming little episode of love. Circe has hit it off with Daedalus, and… and so on. But, as soon as a ship happens to be going the right way—there’s no special treatment for her from the sneering Pasiphae, obviously—she’s taking a safer, slower route back to her island.
As I said, it’s all OK. Madeline Miller can try to persuade us that we’re not in any place we’re familiar with but, really, it isn’t working for me. Early on, we hear of the dissident Prometheus, and witness the first part of his punishment—fierce, flesh-tearing flaying by a Fury who absolutely loves her job…. But Miller is never able to make it seem like a primordial, blood-obsessed time before civilisation. We’re in a literary version of the Marvel universe, so that we completely recognise the mindset of the good guys. Prometheus is a good guy, because he’s been kind to mortals, and a hero because he always knew he would receive eternal punishment in return. And Circe is a good guy too, the only immortal in the place who doesn’t treat the spectacle as a pre-prandial entertainment. It’s as though Miller is asking herself what would happen if a consciousness with the liberal mindset of a middle-class American were to find itself in both a body and environment that are beyond imagination. And there’s the rub. How far can Miller’s imagination take us into this unimaginable, epic universe?
Not very far. Eons pass—when the mortal Glaucos is completely thrown by the news that Circe has lived for millennia, she has to pretend that she had only been joking—but there’s no sense of it. Nothing happens in those early chapters as the centuries pass, so it never feels as though more than an uneventful few years have gone by. There are births—Circe’s mother has four children in total—but in all the centuries at their disposal they’ve only just got round to having children of their own. Meanwhile, Helios’ palatial halls are never actually described, so I imagine an overcrowded high school dining hall, and nor is there any sense of the wide-open ocean spaces of the Mediterranean. It all feels so small, like the pettiness of the rivalries and quarrels of these so-called gods. Maybe it’s why it all seems like school playground behaviour.
But Odysseus will be arriving soon, so maybe things will warm up a bit. It’s what Circe is most famous for, after all.
In the lives of the gods it’s always one damned thing after another. That’s OK—it’s what makes novels like this interesting. Stories and characters we know, or think we’ve vaguely heard of from some old re-telling or other, get added to by Miller’s embellishments and Circe’s constantly mulling them over—it’s a novel, not a fairy-tale, so she, Miller, can give her narrator all the interiority she wants. And if I didn’t mention before that this is a first-person narrative, I’m telling you now. It’s Circe’s early 21st Century voice that confirms the modern mindset for me, whatever Miller might do to pretend this is a centuries-old goddess born in Palaeolithic times.
So what incidents do we get? Circe’s return to her secluded island life, the unwelcome arrival of random naiads exiled there for a year or two to teach them a lesson in obedience, the arrival of an attractive couple who ask her an almost impossible favour, which she grants and soon regrets—the demi-goddess asking is Medea, for goodness’ sake—the arrival of a ship, not that of Odysseus, whose captain rapes her as soon as he realises she’s alone, leading to her turning the whole crew into pigs…. And so on. But as I said, this is a novel, and Miller throws everything she can into making it psychologically interesting. So…
…back to Circe’s return from her adventures in Crete, almost surprised to realise she’s used to it after all these years and finds it quite comfortable. So she’s mortified to discover it is to become a convenient short-term prison for the misbehaving daughters of any god who feels like putting his foot down and have them learn some discipline. First one, then about another half-a-dozen of these tiresome girls arrive to mooch around unhelpfully…. It could be one of those situations designed for Miller’s 21st Century readers to recognise. The first of them is like a recalcitrant teenager until Circe lets her know she isn’t the stand-in teacher who can be given the run-around. Circe gives her a little scare—I forget what, some bit of off-the-cuff witchery—then leaves her to herself. It becomes the pattern.
As for that ship that lands, carrying the couple. It’s immediately clear that it’s potentially a dangerous situation, but Circe goes along with it anyway. (Some chapters later, she looks back on all the times she’s been far too trusting for her own good.) The favour being asked of her is to offer full no-strings expiation to the man from the ship and his tall, black-clad wife. She should have trusted her instincts: ‘I could feel it. That unwholesome air had thickened, coating everything with an oily heaviness. Miasma, it was called. Pollution. It rose from unpurified crimes, from deeds done against the gods and from the unsanctified spilling of blood.’ But if a goddess performs the rites, katharsis is attained.
She could refuse. The deal is that if she does it, no questions asked, the slate is wiped clean. She knows, and we know, that there might be vengeful gods waiting to make life difficult for whoever helps… but she does it anyway, performing the necessary sacrifice and magic to keep them safe from the Fates forever. Good old Circe, she always was a nice girl. Unlike the woman she’s just helped, who—the alarm-bells have been ringing fit to crack—had been carefully hiding her face and hair until the deed is done. She’s a demigod, the daughter of Aeëtes, the younger brother that Circe used to cherish, but who has since become arrogant and cruel. Pasiphae had told her this, and she hadn’t really believed her, but now the daughter recounts why she had to do an appalling thing to escape a fate worse than death.
I’ll spare you the details, but the man Medea is Jason, now her husband. She’s helped him to get the Golden Fleece from Aeëtes, who had been determined nobody was having it. He’d set Jason an impossible task, set 100% fatal obstacles in his way—and, with Medea’s help, he’s overcome them. Aeëtes isn’t happy, commits as many crimes against humanity as the dreadful Pasiphae is also wont to do—I didn’t mention her cunning ruse to spoil her husband’s fun by having every one of a hundred young women die painfully as a direct result of having sex with him—and sails in pursuit of them. Medea is telling all this with Jason there, full of the typical arrogance Circe has described so often in men and uncomfortable with Medea’s starring role. But, on the ship, he had done what she had asked. He had killed her younger brother, Aeëtes’ heir, then cut him into pieces and thrown them into the sea. Medea had known her father would halt his pursuit to give the boy a proper funeral, so they were safe.
Medea has put Jason to sleep by now, and Circe is appalled at her coldness. She has taken off her black cloak and every other disguise, and Circe can see her now. ‘Do you feel no remorse?’ Medea doesn’t miss a beat. ‘I suppose I could weep and rub my eyes to please you, but I choose not to live so falsely. My father would have destroyed the whole ship if I had not acted. My brother was a soldier. He sacrificed himself to win the war.’ Circe has already told her she wouldn’t have performed the sacrifice of expiation had she known, and she is forthright now: ‘he did not sacrifice himself. You murdered him.’ Her courage in these awkward situations, her willingness to speak her mind to absolutely anybody, is another loveable aspect of Miller’s version of Circe. For me, it doesn’t quite sit with her sensitivity in so many other ways—but I suppose Miller has a tricky line to follow. This Circe’s weirdly hybrid consciousness has to be steered through a world of epic, barbaric cruelty. Any modern woman would like to think that speaking out is the only thing to do. Yeh, sure.
Next. Some quiet, she hopes. Which she gets for a while, naiads aside, until that other ship passes and drops anchor. It’s the one carrying the tired and ragged sailors, who are soon astonished both by the generosity she shows and the wealth of the man who must own the place. Which, of course, rings all our 21st Century warning bells again. Circe is ready for their macho attitudes, she thinks. The wine she has been giving them all contains a concoction which will, if she says the word, turn them all into pigs. We’ve heard this story before, in connection with Odysseus. But this captain is no Odysseus, and things escalate so fast she is taken by surprise. He has her around the throat before she knows it, so she can’t speak the transforming spell, and he rapes her. The other men are waiting their turn, when, through luck as much as anything else, she is finally able to gasp it out.
And we’re back with that strange, hybrid consciousness. She looks at the man in front of her, and the scene she witnesses is one long horror-show: ‘He did not finish. His ribcage cracked and began to bulge. I heard the sound of flesh rupturing wetly, the pops of breaking bone. His nose ballooned from his face and his legs shrivelled like a fly sucked by a spider. He fell to all fours. He screamed, and his men screamed with him. It went on for a long time.’ She feels bad about it. right? Wrong. ‘As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.’ How we laughed—and now, whatever we think of her behaviour, we’re supposed to believe that our sensitive, modern-seeming narrator is suddenly turned into a man-hating monster.
Her experience turn the next few months or years—Miller always leaves it vague—into a strange, bitter time. She could cast a spell to make her island look too rocky and dangerous for any ship to come close, but she doesn’t. Instead, she lets them drop anchor, and things almost always turn out badly for them. She isn’t caught out again, and her sties keep filling up. She seems to OK with the idea that it’s a living hell for them, knowing the lives they led and the manly strength they must have been proud of. And she seems to think she’s being fair. Some crews of men don’t threaten her, and she’s keen to tell us she lets them go on their way. I’m asking myself whether Miller’s attempt to separate out divine morality from our own is successful. Usually, Circe’s morality is as human as we could wish for, but the trauma of rape warps her out of it. It’s no wonder the old stories—ah, those pesky old stories—make her out to be the wicked witch.
Miller needs another episode as much as we do—and it’s the one Hermes had told her to expect. Odysseus arrives, but she doesn’t know it until she’s already transformed his men into pigs. She’s poured some of her special wine for him as he wonders aloud what has happened to his men after he sent them on before him. In fact, he talks a lot, in a way Circe finds highly engaging, and he doesn’t touch the wine. Could this man be different from all the others? I think she might even start to wonder if, perhaps, Daedalus wasn’t unique among men…. Whether she does or not, it’s definitely time for another of those romantic fiction sections that didn’t really have a chance to get going with Daedalus. Except this is no ‘little episode of love,’ as I called it that time, because Odysseus is everything a damaged, lonely woman might want.
She doesn’t know his story, Hermes having forsaken her when she stopped being fun. (I can’t quite remember why now. It doesn’t matter.) When he tells her of his exploits, especially those set in and around Troy, she decides she isn’t going to take the high moral ground and criticise his amoral-seeming pragmatism. After all, the Wooden Horse was his idea, and the whole point of it was the massacre of undefended Trojans. Perhaps she can see a like-minded soul—there are no thoughts in this Circe’s mind of the wives and children left grieving. She’s having such a lovely time with this heroic figure of a man that she’s happy to let him stay. And he’s happy to stay, too, so he and his men—quickly returned to their human state as soon as she realises Odysseus isn’t just any old sea-captain—don’t leave the island for a year.
He only leaves because he has to. Apollo himself arrives, described glowingly: ‘Every line of his body was beautiful, perfect with grace. His dark, loose hair was crowned with a wreath. From his shoulder hung a shining silver-tipped bow carved from olive wood.’ (Maybe I’m quoting it because I don’t read the kind of fiction in which the female gaze is so unashamedly presented. She’s been like that with Odysseus too, in his strong-muscled manliness and unswerving can-do attitude.) And when Apollo speaks to her, it’s ‘the greatest chime of all. Every melody in the world belonged to him.’ Aww.
He’s there to show her two visions of what Fate has in store for Odysseus: he will get back to Ithaca, where he’s already ten years late… but first he will have to visit the River of the Dead. After Apollo has gone, she tries not to tell Odysseus for some hours. But she realises she must—there’s no bucking Fate, and Miller has to stick to the old stories after all…. And, after a last night of love, away he has to go. He returns from Hades, briefly, looking absolutely drained. He’s only come to see her to give her the small phial of the tears of the dead she asked for, and away he sails again. He doesn’t know that for their last night together she had come off the sorceress version of the contraceptive pill she’s been taking for centuries….
And what else would you get in a feminist take on a story about a goddess who becomes pregnant and gives birth? I don’t know if the old story is like this, but this Circe gets the pregnancy from hell, a hellish self-administered caesarean (or whatever they were called before Caesar made his appearance), and five or six years of the most demanding boy-child ever. Meanwhile, she’s coping with an Athena-strength threat the great goddess herself made on the day he is born, that she wants him dead and will do all she can to achieve it. She doesn’t say why, and Circe wonders what is making her ask instead of just doing it there and then. (It turns out to be the Fates have something in store, of course, because if there’s anything certain in this universe, it’s that the Fates govern even the lives of gods.) From that day on, she has to create and re-make an elaborate set of spells every month, over three days, both to keep Athene away and to program all the animals on the island to protect the boy with their lives.
Her life is like the worst stories ever told about the miseries of single motherhood, multiplied by maybe three or four. Or five. But eventually, after maybe six years, Telegonus settles down—don’t ask why she calls hm a name so like that of Odysseus’ first son—and, when he grows up, he is the archetype of the youth born of noble blood. Sailors arrive—Circe has taken away the illusion spell to keep them off—and she wonders if it will be like the bad old pre-Odysseus days. They come into the house, ask who the man is who must own it—and Telegonus enters, having been told to hide away. He’s instantly in command, despite being only in his early teens, and they all love him. He helps them fetch and carry things to help them repair their ship, and they leave him with enough tools and skills—he’s a natural, obviously—to build his own boat in secret. She tells him she will never let him sail it, is astonished by how quietly desolated this seem to make him…
…until she accepts that sometimes a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do. All he wants to do is to sail to Ithaca, to see his father he has never known. What could possibly go wrong, with all the spells she can muster to help him?
Chapters 20-27—to the end
As well as spells, Circe has the tail of Trygon, the most powerful of all the sea gods. She’d got it because she asked him and, unlike everybody else who had ever done so—including even her seemingly all-prevailing brother—she agreed to the terms: an eternity of eternal, unimaginable pain. Trygon is so surprised he lets her off the eternal pain, which is lucky. She’d got it for the sake of her then unborn son (I think), and had needed some of its poison on a spear to protect her from Athene. It’s eternal pain for any god receiving a scratch, instant death for any mortal. Just the thing to protect her son, she thinks, as she gives it to him and tells him to be careful with it on his way to Ithaca.
But we know by now that whatever the Fates have in store will happen—and it had been Telegonus’ destiny to bring death to his father. He doesn’t kill him, but the tip of the spear scratches Odysseus as he tries to take it from the intruder waiting outside the palace, the one he doesn’t know is his son. His half-brother Telemachus later confirms it when he’s on Circe’s island, and is telling her what she had never known about Odysseus… but that’s later. For now, what’s a mature literary novelist going to do with these fairy-tale stories and immovable destinies?
Good question. I think Madeline Miller must have been wondering the same thing, because she takes the last few chapters in a less magic-bound direction. There are a couple of episodes that buck this trend, but only in order to let Circe fulfil a destiny she wants to decide for herself. Which means, now I think of it, that Miller chooses to break the rules of the world she’s been pretending to be a part of. Even a god can’t do what Circe decides she’s going to do.
But I’m jumping the gun. In fact, not a huge amount happens in these final chapters in the myth and magic vein, aside from the loose ends that Circe needs magic in order to tie up. Otherwise Miller’s focus is on things that any modern reader can sympathise with. The main thing, to start with, is what is Circe going to do to try to comfort poor Telegonus, the unwilling bringer of death to his father? It turns out she doesn’t have to work too hard, because Penelope and Telemachus arrive fairly soon after and can help. They explain, to a highly suspicious Circe, that life on Ithaca has become tricky for a widowed queen and the son who has never been a fighter. Circe doesn’t believe their stories at first, choosing to believe instead that Penelope is there to do what any right-minded wife would do, avenge her husband’s death. Telemachus is even carrying a knife….
She’s wrong, in fact. Penelope really has had enough of life on a rocky island with squabbling families who resent the deaths that Odysseus was responsible for after his return. He had killed all the suitors who had plagued Penelope for years—who represented the cream of Ithaca’s manhood. Telemachus had been reluctant to help—he’s a quiet, practical man, not a warrior—but he’s tainted by association. When Circe points out the knife he carries, he’s astonished that she thought he meant her harm, and gives it up. Telemachus is like no man she has ever met before, except perhaps Daedalus. Certainly, he couldn’t be any more different from Odysseus if he tried.
But he doesn’t need to try. As days pass and Circe realises neither he nor Penelope represent any danger, they reach an ever more friendly modus vivendi. Out of courtesy, Circe had offered Penelope the use of her loom in order to weave a widow’s robe, and she is soon impressed by this mortal woman’s superior skill. Later, Penelope offers to teach Telegonus to swim—which leaves Telemachus with plenty of time to tell Circe the unattractive things about Odysseus that he hadn’t mentioned to her. It’s now, having already given her assurances that Odysseus had brought his own death upon himself, that he explains the circumstances, and Odysseus’ constant seeking-out of conflict. Anyway, he reminds her—he really is a nice man—there’s nothing anybody can do to avoid the Fates’ decrees. Athene had known of the prophecy and wanted to save her darling Odysseus. But, of course, resistance was useless.
Hearing about Odysseus’ true nature makes this another of those times when Circe realises she was always too trusting… but the more time she spends with Telemachus—and she ends up spending a lot—her feeling that he can be trusted is constantly confirmed. Much later, she shows him the way to the island where she had first picked those flowers rendered magically powerful by having been watered with the blood of a god. She contemplates a change in him as they reach the flowers. ‘The old humming note rose up as if in greeting. “Do not touch them,” I said to Telemachus, but even as the words were out, I realised how foolish they were. The flowers could do nothing to him. He was himself already. I would not see a hair changed.’
This is in the future, but it’s only confirming what she had been growing to realise about this man. When Miller has Circe tell us he is ‘himself’, she’s really telling us he isn’t any kind of Bronze Age heroic type. He’s timeless—i.e. at least as much of our century as of his own—so, in other words, he’s a perfect soulmate for her. Penelope has no problem with this, and neither has Telegonus. She’s content to stay on Circe’s island—Circe has never met a woman like her any more than she’s met a man like Telemachus—and Telegonus is content to sail away and found a dynasty in Italy. Circe is free to go exploring—but first, she has to call down her father from the sky and tell her that she’s had enough of her exile. I can’t remember what bit of diplomatic blackmail she uses—she really is resourceful when she needs to be, one of her range of useful superpowers—but he agrees. So she can go, leaving her island safe for Penelope and Telemachus with an illusory barricade of impenetrable rocks. She’s had time to teach Penelope the rudiments of most of her arts, some of which she knew already, so everything’s just fine.
But Circe wants to use her best magic—she still has Trygon’s tail—in order to sort something out that’s been niggling her for centuries. That pesky Scylla. She had planned to do it on her own, using Telegonus’ boat, rendered properly shipshape by none other than the perfect man about the house and dry dock, Telemachus himself. But, following a clunky moment of realisation—it seems he likes the cut of her jib as much as she likes his—she is very happy for Telemachus to accompany her on her voyage. He has as much of a yen for it as she does, another personality match. But first, Scylla needs to be got rid of for good. She’s successful, of course, although she couldn’t have done it without Telemachus. The gods, or somebody, must be smiling on this match made in Titan heaven.
And that’s nearly it. There’s only one problem for her now, something that’s been chipping away at her consciousness for a lot of these final chapters—to the extent that it I could imagine it featured in one of those lists of talking points for book groups that people insist on putting together. Why do mortals have to die? Why are their lives so full of hardship, pain, loss and all those other sorrows? Well? Well, it turns out that Miller has been setting us up not for a book group discussion, but for the final romantic tweak. Circe doesn’t want to watch Telemachus growing old—he’s already in his 30s—while she remains perpetually 20-something. Which brings her to the magical thing I mentioned that not even a god can do, not even in the old stories—she decides, for the first time ever, that a god can become mortal.
It isn’t a Harry Potter or Marvel universe moment. Miller left all that behind following the final battle with Scylla, and now every last thing is on a human scale. It’s no coincidence that it’s in the final chapter that she has Circe realise that nothing god-ordained would ever change Telemachus. Together, they have left the obsolescent world of the gods far behind. Or almost. The novel ends as she is about to drink the potion she has mixed that will make her what we realise she has always craved to be. One of us.
‘This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive. Overhead the constellations dip and wheel. My divinity shines in me like the last rays of the sun before they drown in the sea. 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. All my life, I have been moving forward, and now I am here. I have a mortal’s voice, let me have the rest. I lift the brimming bowl to my lips and drink.’
The end. A clever move on Miller’s part? Or an ego-flattering affirmation to readers that being human like them is the best possible thing there is? Both, perhaps.