In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.”
I didn’t think any other Madeline Miller book could trump The Song of Achilles and then I read Circe.
Circe is a book about healing. It’s a book about a woman realising her place in a male-dominated world and saying, ‘No, enough. I want something more.’ It’s a book about love and family and how sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. But most of all, it’s a book about the quiet achievements of women throughout history, who have then been silenced or overshadowed by men and who are, finally, getting their own much-deserved story.
I have studied The Odyssey three times over the course of my education. First, in my year 11 Classical History class; second, in year 12 Classical History class (because I’m a nerd); and third, at university during a class called Myth, Art and Empire: Greece and Rome. At one point, I was thoroughly sick of The Odyssey and Homer and every other epic tale of the triumphs of men. How many more times could I possibly learn about some powerful and worldly man, slaying a creature, honouring the gods, and going on a heroic adventure? And then my close friend introduced me to the oft ignored side of the Ancient Greek myths: the stories of the women. I’m talking about Helen, Antigone, Clytemnestra, Andromache, Cassandra — women who merely have a supporting role in the stories of men, and who usually die in some brutal way or are punished to serve as a warning to real life women.
Women like Circe.
Madeline Miller takes the story of the witch Circe and reimagines her life through the perspective of a woman. What I mean by this is that she has nuance to her character that only another woman is able to bring about, because she’s not there to further the stories of men. She takes an active role in her life, although it does take her a while to get there. Circe’s character undergoes some amazing and complex development, from a simple child in her father’s court to a determined and intelligent woman. But even in her father’s court she was curious and rebellious, daring to talk to her uncle, the Titan Prometheus, after his trial.
“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
Circe is an incredible character. I was so enamoured with her; she’s an inspiring woman. She grows so much from the child she was in the house of her father, contending with her cruel siblings and indifferent parents, wanting only to be loved. When she is banished to Aiaíā, her real journey begins. Here she learns from the land how to be her own independent person. She questions the reality that has been forced upon her by her immortal family, and discovers a new side of herself. It’s a stunning journey to experience.
Before I read this novel, I had only known Circe as one of the witches Odysseus encounters on his long journey home. In fact, quite a lot of readers tend to forget about Circe, because Odysseus’ stay on Aiaíā was a relatively relaxing one — aside from Circe turning his men into pigs. But once that’s been resolved, Odysseus and his men enjoy their stay. Many readers of Homer’s epic tend to remember Calypso over Circe, because Calypso kept Odysseus detained on her island for seven years. She wanted to turn Odysseus into her immortal husband, whereas Circe just wanted to give him a place to rest after ten years at war.
Circe is a quiet character and is so often looked over. But Madeline Miller shows why it’s a mistake to ignore Circe as her story is a captivating one. You learn that Circe isn’t the quiet character that male writers have made her out to be: she’s a powerful witch, the only being capable of defeating the Olympian gods, who, for almost twenty years, managed to prevent one of those gods from killing her son by her sheer force of will. Miller’s feminist spin on Circe’s tale is enthralling. I couldn’t stop reading about this incredible woman.
I was also impressed with Miller’s interpretation of Odysseus in Circe. In The Odyssey and The Iliad, he is portrayed as this cunning genius, but in Circe we see a more realistic version of this man made myth. He is haunted by his decisions, which include killing his own men, and his actions aren’t viewed as heroic — they’re devious and, sometimes, evil. It’s the first honest portrayal I’ve ever read of a Homeric character.
“All my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.”
Circe is unlike any novel I have read. It’s very much a character-driven story, with a good portion of the novel dedicated to watching one woman make a place for herself in a world that despised independent women. I hope that every woman that reads this novel will feel a connection — a kinship — to Circe. I certainly did.