Book Content Warning: rape
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The Odyssey recounts how the sorceress Circe was bested, tamed, and seduced by the great hero Odysseus. But what if Circe could tell her own version of the story? Madeline Miller explores this possibility within her novel Circe: a story that transcends just a simple rewriting of The Odyssey. Where Circe was only a brief mention in the former, Odysseus is only a brief mention in Miller’s book. Her voice and point of view take center stage, reclaiming the narrative as her own. Miller gives the immortal witch the space to describe all her centuries of life, from a shrinking nymph in her father Helios’ halls to the powerful witch of her own island Aeaea, to something even more in this grand epic of self-discovery.
The most striking thing about this novel is its prose. Each word and metaphor is deliberate and descriptive, almost reminiscent of a bardic tale from thousands of years ago. The language wraps you up, transports you, and enchants you, as if you were under one of Circe’s many spells. The story is a slow burn, but each wonderful detail bleeds into another until you find that you cannot put the book down.
Miller brings to light modern values within the mythical tale. Circe channels many feminist themes, incorporating a rejection of patriarchal norms, empowerment, and self-reliance. However, the focus is always on Circe and her story as an individual first, and as a woman second. Miller avoids any forced performance of feminism in favor of a more rich, dynamic story. In turn, the novel finds itself more genuinely feminist. Thus, Circe’s story begins unexpectedly: with her being meek and overshadowed rather than immediately defiant. She is just an undesired minor goddess whom no one sees any use for. Circe is not particularly beautiful nor powerful— her father cannot even secure her a marriage. It takes the discovery of a new power, witchcraft, for Circe to begin to realize her own worth. Feared for her gift, she is banished to the island Aeaea; but rather than being a punishment, the independence and freedom Aeaea affords her allows Circe to grow into her own.
Unlike the other gods with their natural-born gifts and powers, Circe must work and claw her way to master her ability of witchcraft. It takes more than innate talent; Miller emphasizes Circe’s endurance and strength of will above all. Her propensity for self-improvement and growth is one of the many things which set her apart from her immortal kin. Circe is also ostracized from her brethren through her rejection of greatness. Throughout the story, almost every single character tries to scramble up the ladder of power. Minor gods try to win the favor of greater gods, mortal men try to become heroes, but Circe rejects fame that stems from ego, fear, and violence. Her story is one of empowerment, not of power over others. Circe finds no joy in the “great chain of fear”: the name she coins for the ladder of intimidation with the greatest gods at the top and nymphs and mortals at the bottom.
Despite being a protagonist that we root for and that acts as a champion of feminist ideals, Miller makes Circe far from perfect. Throughout the many chapters of her life, we see the goddess as young and foolish, then old and bitter. Her impulsiveness and wrath rack up quite a hefty death count. Circe may love deeply, but she does not forgive easily: once hurt, she often forgets to recognize the qualities in others that might garner sympathy or redemption. However, Miller makes Circe live with her mistakes and presses her to bear the consequences of them. Circe is able to grow because of her many blunders and, throughout all her actions, she never fails to feel distinctly human. In this way, the goddess’ wrathful actions even feel somewhat justified. In particular, Circe’s notorious habit of turning men into pigs, something that made her a bit of a villain in The Odyssey, is reframed as an act of revenge that is as cathartic as it is horrific.
On the whole, Circe’s story is truly one of self-discovery and change. Like her great powers of transformation, Circe’s own character seems to grow and shapeshift into its truest self. Throughout this grand epic, Circe is constantly changing and learning, but also seemingly searching for who she is and where she belongs. You must wait until the final page to find out, and once you do, you will see that her truest form has made perfect sense all along.
Madeline Miller is an American novelist, author of The Song of Achilles and Circe.
Circe can be purchased here.