Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I have some educational background in mythology, so I’ll usually give anything Illiad or Odyssey themed a chance. I’m a fan of Greek myths because they’re so varied: Greek deities of all levels are a tapestry of virtues and flaws that more accurately reflect the capriciousness of an immortal being’s attention to humans. I also (right or wrong) tend toward being a terrible book snob, and I know it. My reading list is long, and I’m picky, so I don’t waste time anymore on books that don’t meet high expectations right away. If I’m not hooked by the end of the second chapter, I will have zero remorse about setting a book aside and moving on. Circe hooked me on page one.

If you don’t recall the backstory, Circe is the sorceress on an island in the Aegean who turns Odysseus’ men to pigs and has a year-long affair with the Greek hero before sending him back to Ithaca. Retellings the Odysseus myth vary in the treatment of Circe: sometimes she’s a benevolent  being who treats his men unfairly and is convinced to be nice by falling in love with the hero. Sometimes she’s a wicked and powerful witch, terrifying in her malicious treatment of men after gaining a reputation of turning them into pigs, until Odysseus “tames” her. 

Miller’s retelling is the biography of a minor goddess, daughter of Helios (the Titan who is literally the sun in the sky) and one of Oceanus’s (Titan of…you guessed it, the Ocean) daughters, a nymph. In this version, Circe is the unremarkable and emotionally abused sibling of her sister and two brothers, all of whom go on to do relatively famous deeds. Circe is portrayed as being too naive and too trusting of her family, and is abused for having zero power. Even her voice is considered horrid; she’s often told to be quiet because of the tonal quality. Her voice sounds more human than immortal, and it’s grating to immortal ears. In every way, Circe’s “childhood”, or perhaps more accurately her first few hundred years, is an exercise in making her as invisible as possible.

It is in her loneliness that she turns to the friendship of a mortal sailor. She falls in love and wants to find a way to stay together, and turns to forbidden secret herbs rumored to be magic. The resulting mess reveals her for what she is: a witch. A woman without specific magical powers who can gain non-divine power through knowledge, learning, and herbs provided by Gaia herself. Being neither Titan nor Olympian in her power, Circe is considered an unknown, and therefore a threat, by Zeus. When she publicly admits her witchcraft and abilities, she becomes the witch scapegoat: banished forever to her island while her siblings, who posses the same powers, become famous in their own ways.

Madeline Miller does an excellent job of creating a general attitude of casual dismissal of humanity by the the Olympians, Titans, and other immortals. They are as capricious, selfish, and callous as one might think a being who becomes bored over millennia could be. Circe, then, is set up from the beginning as an outsider simply by carrying something the rest of her family don’t have at all: an air of humanity. I love this character. I love that over the course of the book she experiences every human emotion a woman can feel and learns to exert her independence and power for herself as she grows. Circe is not a fully formed “perfect” being like the rest of the immortals: she learns, suffers, and grows over time. She is not content to just be the mousy outcast her family of origin paint her to be. 

Circe’s circumstances aren’t those of the mythic hero, out of touch with the reader’s experience: she yearns for companionship, love, family, and friendship. Yet because she’s immortal, she also touches other myths both surrounding the fall of Troy, Daedalus and Icarus, Scylla and Charybdis, the Golden Fleece, the Minotaur, and many others. Even in her isolation, Circe’s world has a vastness beyond her little island and helps the reader with some sense of time. News of the world is cleverly brought to Circe via an ongoing casual affair with Hermes, the Messenger God who stops in occasionally for a gossip-and-sex visit.

Miller’s writing is utterly enjoyable. She’s lyrical in a way that ties Circe to the feel of other Greek myths. In relating the death of Daedalus, Circe says:  “I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.” (Circe, Hachette Books, 2018) Every time I read that line, I get goosebumps. That’s a rare thing for me, and I love Madeline Miller for it.

The Odysseus tale occurs about midway through the book, which is fitting considering her year with him is only a blip in an eternity for Circe. That year has lasting consequences, however, and some interesting twists as time passes. Miller’s portrayal of the sailors, Odysseus, and their relationship is so much more human than the myth. It’s wonderful, and it sets the stage for the final third of the story with multiple threads that tie together later.

You’d think covering so long a life would become tedious, but Circe’s journey from the outcast nymph to powerful sorceress to…well, without spoilers I can say the satisfying resolution of her tale… is absolutely captivating. I was engrossed. I’ll re-read this often.

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