Circe by Madeline Miller: Review

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Summary

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“When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.”

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Circe, a retelling of the nymph and goddess of the same name, is a fantasy novel by Madeline Miller. Circe is the daughter of the sun-god Helios and the ocean nymph Perse who is a witch and sorceress.

In Greek mythology, the most familiar story of Circe’s life takes place in Homer’s Odyssey in which Circe uses her magic and herblore to turn wayward sailors on her island home of Aiaia into pigs. She meets and has an affair with Odysseus on her island before he returns to Ithaca following the Trojan War, bearing children by him. Another well-known story in mythology tells of her falling in love with the moral, Glaucus, and turning his love interest, the nymph Scylla, into a sea monster. In mythology, she is generally perceived as a predatory female and sexually promiscuous woman.

The novel Circe provides further background for these two events, telling the stories of the Odyssey from Circe’s own perspective. It follows her from her youngest childhood years in the halls of the Titans to her life on Aiaia; from her identity as a goddess to her identity as a witch and finally to her identity as a woman.

If you love Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series but find yourself wanting something geared towards adults, this retelling could very well be for you! While maintaining the structure of Circe’s story, Miller’s novel turns her identity as a predatory, sexually promiscuous goddess on its head, choosing to focus instead on her humanity: her strengths, her faults, and her growth. 

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Thoughts

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“I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.”

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 I found Circe to begin at a rather slow pace. The story begins in the halls of the Titans with Circe as a child sitting at the feet of her father, Helios, reveling in her godhood while also enduring the jabs of the other gods, goddesses, and nymphs. Circe is described as being less beautiful and less godlike than her siblings, possessing a voice like that of a mortal. My affection for Circe as a character waxed and waned a bit throughout the story. By the end of the story, however, I was rooting wholeheartedly for her. Miller sets up Circe’s character by forming a strong persona for the gods and a strong persona for mortals.

Miller depicts gods the way that many writers have: tumultuous, but ultimately unchanging. They are infuriating, but that’s the point. Each god is presented as stubborn and prideful, constantly wavering between joy and fury depending on whether or not they feel worshiped or slighted. They have their distinctions, of course; but, on the whole, the gods present a consistent personality type.

In contrast, we meet one of Circe’s mortal children by Odysseus, Telegondus, and Odysseus’s mortal wife and son, Penelope and Telemachus. Odysseus describes Penelope as “a fixed star, a true-made bow . . . she is steady.” Telemachus is similarly steady and their presence on Circe’s island in the story provides a needed counterweight to the chaos of the gods. Indeed, it is Telegondus that begins a change in Circe that reaches its completion after time spent with Penelope and Telemachus. What we gain from Circe and her interactions with both immortals and mortals is a sense of balance and perspective. Circe’s story is one of self-discovery and change. Beginning as a child begging at Helios’s feet and ending as a woman standing up to her father in pursuit of her own happiness, we bear witness as a god embraces the positives and negatives of her divinity and chooses to balance them against the positives and negatives of mortality. I had no idea where Circe’s story would lead as she was falling in love with Glaucus, being exiled to  Aiaia, and meeting her lover’s family, but when at the end I saw her future unfolding, I wasn’t surprised. There was really no other path for a woman like Circe to tread. 

Miller’s prose reads both ancient and modern, as perhaps it should for an ancient story told to us by the woman who would have lived then and could possibly still be alive today to share it with us. Moments of antiquity and moments of modernity weave together rather seamlessly throughout Circe’s narrative. It is familiar and easy to read, yet filled with enough bygone words and expressions to convince us that Circe is telling the story and that she did once walk in ancient lands. 

In the end, Circe’s story left me with a curiosity to know what happened next (perhaps inevitable when reading the memoir of an immortal), yet satisfied that her story was going to end well. No longer would Circe quake under the eyes of Zeus and Helios, no longer would she be left turning men into swine, no longer would she carry the burden of her past mistakes. She would, I believe, be free. 

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Final Recommendation

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“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

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While it’s not the most compelling work of fantasy fiction I read in 2021, reading Circe was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The novel grew on me as did Circe herself, providing a unique and needed female perspective on one of history’s most familiar stories. 

 

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