I was just blown away by this book. Madeline Miller’s Circe is an absolute dream for anyone who loves Greek mythology, or anyone who loves a phenomenally written piece of fiction. So really, this book is for everyone.
This novel narrates the immortal life of the Greek sorceress Circe, banished by her father Helios to exile on the remote island of Aeaea. In Miller’s humerous and raw re-telling of Circe’s story, we see Circe as a young immortal who is a bit of a misfit, not entirely fitting in with gods, but not quite fitting in with mortals either. It’s awkward, and she’s entirely aware of that, and discovering her power of witchcraft only makes her ostracism worse. When she uses her craft to make a mortal immortal out of love (only to find out that he never really loved her, and he leaves her for Scylla), she then turns Scylla into the monster we know her later as in the Greek canon of myths. So, she is banished for the rest of her life.
We follow Circe on her island over the many years, as she grapples with her forced solitude, but also confronting many interruptions of that solitude with the steady flow of unexpected and unknown visitors who happen upon Aeaea. These figures happen to be all kinds of famous Greek figures or war-weary men: Daedalus, Hermes, Odysseus etc. Each of these encounters are entirely thrilling, but not because of any brute force or physical threat that Circe confronts, but the tense psychological elements behind each meeting. This book is not so much a thriller in a literal sense, but an emotional one: Circe, with each unknown man and woman (or God!) she meets, must quickly assess their power, their intentions, their motives and their threat and act accordingly. And there is reason for this – Circe has to learn the hard way, with various characters, who to trust and who to doubt.
For this, Circe is a refreshing read, and remarkably liberating. We finally get to see into the psyche of a woman so misunderstood for millennia. With this book, Miller gives narrative agency to a mythic figure who had, before now, been given very little attention outside of her cameos in The Odyssey and a few other stories here and there. Circe was quite a mysterious character having previously been considered somewhat calculated, unfeeling, manipulative – a villain in a minor regard. Miller’s novel gives her so much more depth than what we have previously thought of her: guarded but not unfeeling, trusting yet self-protective, loving, and self-aware in so many admirable respects. Circe has an uncanny ability to look beyond the self to explore the magic of time and importance of love. She is a fighter in so many ways.
And it is just so entirely fun that we get to meet all kinds of famous Greek figures: Daedalus and his son Icarus; the titan Prometheus; Pasiphae who gives birth to the minotaur, and Theseus who slays him; Medea (who I like to call history’s original crazy lady) and Jason (her dumb, arrogant husband); and of course, the wanderer Odysseus, who Circe falls in love with momentarily, before later discovering his true nature and befriending his wife and son. Perhaps the most electrifying encounter is Circe’s tension with the goddess Athena, especially during her brief relationship with Odysseus, and a son who is born soon after Odysseus’s departure. Athena is everything that Circe had previously been unfairly labeled as: cold, calculated, ruthless and unyielding. It is this hostility with Athena that Circe blossoms into the woman she truly is: unyieldingly clever, loving, and unapologetically steadfast.
Of course, the story itself was delightfully thrilling, but I what I found even more compelling was the quality of Miller’s writing. Elegant and invigorating, Miller’s eloquent writing gives this story and this character exactly the narrative that Circe deserved. This book, I am sure, will be soon revered as a part of the modern literary canon. I recommend this for anyone.
If you are interested, you can buy the book here!