On Monday, you heard from Dana about why she loves The Song of Achilles more than any other work of Madeline Miller’s. I promised you all that friends would be pitted against each other over the course of the week on this blog. That’s why today I’m here to discuss the reasons why it’s actually Circe that is unrivaled as Miller’s best novel.
Naturally, in a post that will argue that Circe is better than The Song of Achilles, I have to start by talking about how spectacular The Song of Achilles is. I’ll name the main reasons why I thought it was so good. For one, the ending devastated me. This was in part because the writing is so lyrical and poetic. I believe that someone with Miller’s writing style was meant to write a love story like the one featured in The Song of Achilles. And perhaps this book’s biggest strength is its love story. It made me acutely aware of what it means to be tragically in love. Circe had no hope of containing a love story anywhere as compelling as this one, and thank goodness, it didn’t even try.
All of these are reasons why I was shocked when I read Circe and began to love it in a way that was deeper and more complex than my love for The Song of Achilles. It is hands down one of the best books that I have ever read. Since I started Ristra Reads and Recs, I have been waiting for the chance to explain what this book means to me.
Before I came up with the idea for Madeline Miller Week, I didn’t feel the need to soliloquize about why I find Circe to be better than The Song of Achilles, even though I think that this is a fun way for Dana and I to engage with the two novels. I do think that comparing the two novels serves a purpose, though, because they allow me to explore what the difference between a very good book and a truly outstanding book is. What I mean by all of this is that this post is not meant to bring any negativity to The Song of Achilles. It is a great work of prose in its own right. But at the end of the day, Circe has my whole heart, and it’s time to discuss why that is.
On a basic level, Circe is more well plotted and better narrated.
The Song of Achilles is not always well plotted. Namely, it does drag in some areas. Everyone who is familiar with the Iliad or the story of the Trojan War will spend quite a while waiting for the book to get to the war. I think that Miller was reveling in the narrative freedom she had before the war scenes, and wanted to give her characters the chance to experience real happiness. Accordingly, a lot of the book focuses on Patroclus’ and Achilles’ childhoods, and it makes the pacing of the novel feel off. With so much time spent in childhood, I felt like I was often waiting for the book to get to its point.
Circe, on the other hand, has a more natural plot, in the sense that there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, and these parts are evenly spaced out. Miller wasn’t stuck to a particular story with the titular character Circe in the way that she was with Patroclus, so I think she had more freedom to tell the story in the exact way that she wanted. In a lot of ways, Miller’s freedom to be creative also contributes to Circe being a stronger narrator than Patroclus. Circe’s narration focuses on mapping out who she is as a person, while Patroclus’ often focuses on his love story. Circe’s voice as a narrator consequently comes across more strongly than Patroclus’.
Additionally, there is a certain part of Patroclus’ narrative that I think Miller could have written better. Without spoiling anything, at one point in The Song of Achilles, the story becomes more focused on Achilles, and Miller struggled a bit with how to continue to include Patroclus’ perspective. The route that she chose to go was jarring, in my mind. Circe doesn’t encounter any of these troubles, and as a result is a superior narrator.
The crowning achievement of Circe is the titular character. She is endlessly relatable.
Circe is a masterfully well written character. To start with, Miller manages to make her relatable. I have seldom related more to a character in my entire life than I have to Circe. Strange as it may seem, I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of the same experiences that this witch goddess has. The way that other people treat her is horrible. She is often the laughing stock in the room, deemed a freak, liked by virtually no one, and still she has the compassion to try to love and change and take chances. Her story gets to me, and it takes me back to when I was very young and unsure of how to fit in and usually failing miserably at it. I have had so many similar experiences to Circe that this book was painful to read at times, to see my emotions so blatantly exposed on the pages for everyone to see.
Circe isn’t just relatable, she’s also brilliantly written and full of complexities.
I can only hope that I will be able to write a character like this someday.
Even though I relate to her, Circe isn’t a sympathetic character at all times. She didn’t do what I wanted her to do at points throughout the story. She was beholden to her emotions. This just made her feel more alive to me. She is a complex and imperfect person in my eyes. I can’t help but think of her as a real person sometimes.
In a world that tries to put her down, mock her, and leave her in the mud, Circe has a determination to be herself. She loves recklessly, even after people let her down. She’s brave. She challenges the natural order of the gods. She’s everything I want in a main character, and in a heroine. Even after I put the book down for a while, and the specifics of the plot started to fade, Circe has stayed with me, reminding me to ignore the people, and specifically the men, who want to put me down, and to focus on living life on my own terms. Even as I think about her now, I get emotional, because she means so very much to me.
And yes, the ending of The Song of Achilles was like a punch to the gut and it hurt to breathe. But I actually cried more at the end of Circe. At the end of the book, for a few minutes, Circe made me acknowledge my humanity and what it means to truly live, which felt like a gift.
I highly encourage you to read this book if you haven’t already!