Madeline Miller’s 2018 international number 1 bestseller, Circe, takes classical Greek literature, in turn based upon classical Greek mythology, as its subject. The title character is perhaps most famous for her appearance in Homer’s ancient epic poem, The Odyssey. This original text follows a war hero named Odysseus on his journey home after ten years spent fighting in the Trojan War (this first adventure is the subject of The Illiad, also attributed to Homer). Though a king, and visited frequently by the gods, Odysseus is a mortal man. Circe, however, is a Titan goddess, daughter of the sun, Helios, and a water nymph named Perse (other adaptations name Hectate, goddess of sorcery, as her mother, though Miller is not one of them).
In The Odyssey, Circe is one amongst many mythical characters with whom Odysseus interacts. She lives, primary alone, on an island in luxury. She knows magic, and uses it. She has power, and beauty, and strength of mind. She is a present character for a year or two of Odysseus’ journey, and is similarly present for a book or two of Homer’s epic. And now, approaching 3,000 years later, Madeline Miller gives her a story all her own.
“𝕳𝖊𝖑𝖎𝖔’𝖘 𝖉𝖆𝖚𝖌𝖍𝖙𝖊𝖗, 𝖗𝖆𝖎𝖘𝖊𝖉 𝖔𝖓 𝖘𝖙𝖔𝖗𝖎𝖊𝖘 𝖔𝖋 𝖇𝖗𝖊𝖆𝖐𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖜𝖔𝖗𝖑𝖉.”
With a vast legacy behind her, Circe has long been established as a very particular character in my mind. I am a fan of Greek mythology, and of Homer. I am a fan of Circe, the ruthless witch of myth, and literature, and my own invention. I am, also, however, a fan of stories, and anything that breathes fresh air into old lore demands my attention.
***SPOILER WARNING from this point onward***
Circe begins with the titular character in childhood. Miller masterfully builds a world of sun-drenched opulence that I cannot wait to return to day after day. Characters that I am familiar with pop up, as do story lines from Circe’s early lore that I am not. Her early days are spent in a golden hive dripping with gods. Whilst stories of Prometheus, the Titans vs the Olympians, Glaucos and Scylla, the Minotaur, Icarus, and Jason, are all captivating, above all else I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Odysseus. This I blame on the book’s blurb, which directly references Odysseus’ arrival as though it is the central plotline. When he finally turns up in the second half of the book, it’s clear that he is not the main story. Whilst I now know that it was Miller’s intention to give Odysseus the same attention that Homer gave to Circe, namely two books within the novel, I feel misled by the blurb. This is the second contemporary bestseller whose blurb has mentioned late-blooming plot points that manifest as distracting spoilers; perhaps it’s common practice, but I’m new to this previously-avoided classification of novel, and I don’t understand the habit! Anyway, back to Circe…
The narrative is littered with short arcs (and stones – why is there so much incongruous stone imagery?!*) in which Circe plays contributing roles and, to my knowledge, Miller stays true to the existing canon. On one hand I enjoy reading the various threads of Circe’s story woven together into a complete narrative. On the other, the story becomes less about the events and more about Circe’s journey. Theoretically, this is fine – mythology and classical fiction are filled with allegory, so I expect lessons learnt and messages delivered – this is what Homer does, is it not? When you take away the existing lore, however, what is left reads like a novel about any old protagonist going through an identity crisis born out of family issues and baggage from various relationships. Miller retells old tales with clear modern vernacular, but I fear that her modern telling of Circe herself misses the mark.
This culminates in one particular event that almost lead to a rage quit. I need to make it clear that a steadfast picture of Circe has existed in my mind for around a decade. She is a strong woman. A witch. She is ruthless. A little evil. She is a goddess and, like all Ancient Greek deities, she asserts her power, and smites, with very human flaws. She is capricious. She is all of these things deliciously, and confidently. This is Circe. To me (but really).
Contrastingly, Miller’s Circe falters and doubts. She seeks magical vengeance, repeatedly, whilst cursing her family for their cruelty. She is constantly seeking to distance herself from them and their godliness, but she is no different in essence. The resulting Circe is bitter, and shameful. And then, that scene. Circe is raped by a sailor whilst his crewmates observe. [As far as I’m aware this is a new addition – if I am wrong, please, correct me in the comments, or on Instagram!] It is not the event itself that I take issue with in the context of the novel – it’s the effect which it has on our witch goddess and the following narrative. From this point onwards, Circe ‘has reason’ to turn men into pigs, to fit in with the story we know from her appearance in The Odyssey. Odysseus is near the end in a long list of sailors to arrive on her island of exile and to receive her judgement. If they are pious they are fed, if they are not they are turned to swine, but if they are handsome she takes them to bed. She has had problematic relationships with problematic men and gods, from the start, but now she has been martyred… Circe is a witch goddess. She should act boldly, hedonistically, mercilessly, without the trauma of a brutal rape implemented as excuse.
“𝕳𝖚𝖒𝖇𝖑𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖜𝖔𝖒𝖊𝖓 𝖘𝖊𝖊𝖒𝖘 𝖙𝖔 𝖒𝖊 𝖆 𝖈𝖍𝖎𝖊𝖋 𝖕𝖆𝖘𝖙𝖎𝖒𝖊 𝖔𝖋 𝖕𝖔𝖊𝖙𝖘. 𝕬𝖘 𝖎𝖋 𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖈𝖆𝖓 𝖇𝖊 𝖓𝖔 𝖘𝖙𝖔𝖗𝖞 𝖚𝖓𝖑𝖊𝖘𝖘 𝖜𝖊 𝖈𝖗𝖆𝖜𝖑 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖜𝖊𝖊𝖕.”
There are many moments throughout the novel that Circe (or rather, Miller) refers to men telling the tales and taking the lead. This novel felt (absolutely without the need for the author to explicitly say it) like the perfect chance to give Circe a strong voice. She begins, falteringly, with a weak, unpleasant, human voice. I understand. It is a journey. It takes time to shake the influence of her family (read: the patriarchy, because there is no doubt that this is a staunchly feminist retelling) before she finds herself in the company of those who can bear her voice. When she gets there, however, I’m not sure she has all that much to say for herself. The story comes alive in the mythology surrounding her. In these moments, it is magnificently told. It is filled with bold and wicked and flawed characters, male and female alike. Yet Circe must endure rape to give reason to her strength. In a feminist retelling that frequently denounces the pantheon and men, Circe’s rape places men in a position central to her character.
She is a witch goddess who lives amongst lions. I did not want the story of a lover waiting at her loom, a desperate mother holding her child too tightly, a daughter denouncing her blood for fear of her power. In defaming Odysseus for his own flaws and errors and, in the penultimate chapter, in referring to the sun (who, remember, is her father, vengeful god of the sun, Helios, one literally able to withstand fire) as “still shy of its blistering summer heat,” Circe is not elevated out of the shadow of male characters, she lowers herself into unnecessary submission. Through his wife, Penelope, Odysseus is the one to articulate the main drive of Circe’s character, which culminates in the following and final chapter… “That he had never met a god who enjoyed their divinity less.”
If this was the story of another character, or Circe in another world, I think I’d have been more forgiving, but this is not the narrative I wish for her. Classical Greek mythology is filled with strong characters, driven by flawed psyches, and brutal, violent events. We know this. And even if we don’t, we are perfectly capable of concluding what is right and wrong in the real world, for ourselves. Circe’s discomfort at her own godliness – her very self – can only be read as Miller’s voice, encouraging the reader toward the moral high ground. In reality, that’s where I want to be – a moral person – but in Greek mythology, let the gods remain untainted by human mental anguish, by imposter-syndrome, anxiety, shame, issues of self-worth. Allow the reader the pleasure of fantasy without such unrefined glimpses of depressing human weakness.
Circe is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed… and that simultaneously summoned within me a thousand furies. I understand that it may not be clear, but I really do recommend this book, I just hope that it is not your only interaction with the classics, because the old stuff is truly on another level.
𝕭𝖔𝖓𝖚𝖘: “𝖘𝖙𝖔𝖓𝖊 𝖚𝖕𝖔𝖓 𝖘𝖙𝖔𝖓𝖊”
*But really, did anyone else pick up on all the mentions of stones? This whole review was going to be demarcated by the progression of stone imagery in the novel… but I spent my entire reading experience semi-consciously grappling with the relevance of these rocks and, in the end, I don’t feel like it was worth it.
At times a stone is a stone: “[I]ts walls built from finely fitted stone.”
Circe is a stone: “I was nothing, a stone,” yet a male (Jason in this case) is “rolling words like great boulders, lost in the details of his own legend.”
A stone is negative: “[S]tealing away their minds so they have no more will than stones.”
And positive: “But I liked it, as if his words were a secret. A thing that looked like a stone, but inside was a seed.”
It denotes the gravity of a situation: “The name meant nothing to them. It dropped onto the floor like a stone.”
It is the defeat of her enemies: Helios “looked as though he had swallowed a stone, and it choked him,” and Scylla “had turned to stone.”
In the end, I suppose it marks her journey: “I had been a stranger to myself, turned to stone for no reason I could name,” to crack the stone and become the fragile, living seed within.
Do you agree? Share your thoughts on Circe, and my review of it in the comments!
This is the final post for January’s Gothic Muses theme… though it has offered an unexpected segue into February’s theme: Gothic Psyche. Follow along here and across social media, and join the mailing list (which will come alive momentarily!) to stay up to date with all that is Generally Gothic.
And don’t forget there are a couple of days remaining to enter the Half K Giveaway!