I first encountered the figure of Circe at the age of nine as I worked on a project detailing Greek and Roman myth. At the time, she was just another mythological entity, but thirteen years later she has blossomed into being for me through Madeline Miller’s Circe.
I had never thought to wonder what Circe’s childhood would be like, but that is precisely where the story as Miller has chosen to tell it begins. The book starts with the first person narration of Circe, detailing the traditions of the ‘lesser’ gods, particularly nymphs such as her mother Perse and demoted or diminished Titans (such as her uncles, who are placated by her father, the sun god Helios, who remains powerful). Circe’s early worldview is shaped by her complete immersion into the world of immortals, with almost no contact with mortals until later in her life.
The narration of Circe’s early life and naivete is intriguing, and sets up for her compelling transition into witchcraft, but the book only truly starts when Circe begins her exile. After growing up in the halls of her father, the sun god, Circe participates actively in a series of events that lead to Zeus demanding her exile, and she begins to live alone on the island of Aiaia. Although it is a punishment, exile is what ultimately leads Circe to discover her own freedom, through the honing of her craft, the mastery of life on the island (animals and plants alike), visits from mortals or other gods, and even a couple trips off the island (one allowed and one illicit). Circe learns how to exert her autonomy and develop relationships, both good and bad with those who come to her island and those in the outside world. Circe is a coming-of-age story not in the literal sense of youth to adulthood, as Circe is millenia old, but in the sense of a person who continuously develops between the stagnated world of gods and the fleeting world of mortals.
The retelling of classical myth from Circe’s perspective is compelling because as someone cut off from the outside world, her isolation puts her into a unique position that allows us to hear the myths she is not the focus of secondhand and from the perspective of an immortal. The secondhand nature of these accounts leads to several myths having but the most basic of cameos, and I am sure that some will go flying over the heads of people who are not as familiar with Greek myth. Nevertheless, I do not think that this detracts from Circe; rather, it enables readers to enjoy the text on multiple levels.
The fact that Circe is an immortal is also important to the narration because when classical myths are told, they are almost exclusively through the perspective of mortals, or from stories told to mortals, where the gods are seen from a worshipful perspective. Since readers are experiencing these myths through Circe we get to see these myths as they might be interpreted from someone who is both divine and female.
I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate having a book with such a resilient and nuanced female protagonist that exists in an environment that is so oppressive to women. When I read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles* I was taken aback by the stark reference to the maltreatment of women as was customary in the period, something that is also present within Circe. While I considered The Song of Achilles an excellent book, the portrayal of women churned my stomach, as it always does in mythological tales told from the male perspective.
The difference for me in reading Circe was that as a woman Circe is able to pick up on the subtle ways that women maintain what power and autonomy they can, and additionally does so herself. I always remembered Circe from the Odyssey as turning men into pigs because she was cruel, but (mild spoiler) in this book she does so to combat the very real threat of rape by men who come to her island. Circe is full of these small alterations that truly flesh out the character as her own being. Similarly we are allowed access to Medea and Penelope, two other women of myth who have contrasting but equally stunning places in the mythological tradition. Medea is a powerful witch in her own right, as is seen in the myth of Jason, and Penelope is the well-known wife of Odysseus. Both of them have amazing stories, and are personal favorites of mine, which is why I enjoyed their presences within Circe so much, though they fill very different roles within the text.
Overall I consider Circe to be a brilliant take on the mythological tradition and presentation of Circe’s journey is one I have deeply enjoyed. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone who has even a passing interest in myth, and I wholeheartedly believe that even those who don’t would be craving more once they’ve read this excellent novel.
*To read my review of The Song of Achilles click the hyperlink!