The story of Circe has been retold throughout the centuries, famously depicted in Homer’s Odyssey. Madeline Miller’s interpretation is presented to the reader in this popular novel.
Circe is daughter of Helios, an undesirable nymph raised in her father’s cruel court. Desperate to not be as atrocious as her godly family she is depicted as a free spirit, helping her grandfather during his calamitous punishment from Zeus and falling in love with a selfish mortal who finds another, more beautiful nymph. But when her rage forces her to exile she is faced with the realities of the gods and horrors of mortals alike.
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth“
The novel centres entirely on Circe’s character. Her cold rage, arduous existence and struggling humanity provides the narrative to a plot woven from the Greek myths. Throughout her exile her character grows, understanding more of the gods’ personalities from mortals as she comes to realise who she is. With only fleeting glimpses of other characters who briefly touch her immortal eternity Circe’s character development is the nucleus of the tale.
Circe’s sense of integrity and remorse sets her aside from the gods she grew up around and becomes a prevalent theme throughout the novel. The freedom Circe comes to enjoy in her exile and the space she is given to grow and study magic further emphasis this theme, as she struggles to help the mortals her family so desperately want to manipulate.
“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.“
In some accounts of the tale Circe’s ability to turn men into animals was akin to a temptress, leading men astray, however in this retelling it is characterized as justice. This sense of transformation persists not only when Circe turns rapists and thieves into pigs, but when Scylla becomes a monster, insinuating that their images now reflect their personalities. This theme builds up throughout the novel becoming increasingly evident to reader, foreshadowing the ending the author has chosen.
This novel draws on different historical retellings of this myth as the basis for the plot: Telegonus’s meeting with his father, Scylla’s monstrous transformation and even Odysseus’s crew being turned to pigs. The hapless presence of these events, strung together from individual stories, made the plot feel disjointed and often I struggled to engage with the wider storyline when a self contained allegory concluded.
“But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.“
The combination of different retellings negatively effects the pacing also. I found it difficult to engage with each new chapter of the story when the last ended so decisively. However the story is well crafted and, given the unusual premise, the juddering pace was understandable. The events of the novel take place over hundreds of years which meant, despite the pace not feeling smooth, the plots of the novel never felt unnecessarily drawn out.
Miller’s writing style is unique and excellently shaped for this style of novel. Her allegories are precise and to the point, enabling the plot to cover such a complex and long history, while also being peppered with beautiful descriptions and intricate details. The writing radiated a story telling vibe, feeling almost akin to the Greek myths themselves, which felt appropriate given the subject.
“Perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.“
The setting of this novel is the Greek island of Aeaea, where Circe is exiled to. It’s untamed woods, streams and rocky outcrops make it a wild paradise much like Calypso’s island in the original myths. Circe roams this wildness barefoot, highlighting both her invulnerability as a goddess and her freedom as an exile. The island is stark comparison to Circe’s father’s halls, which is beautiful in design and allows nymphs to safely roam and sunbathe openly. Despite the island being untamed and filled with wolves and lions it still feels safer to Circe than the manicured halls she grew up in.
I listened to this novel as an audiobook, which I would strongly recommend. It adds to the story telling tone of the novel and aids the reader in difficult Greek pronunciation from the original myths. The reader, Perdita Weeks, is clear and encapsulates Circe’s personality perfectly in a delicate and clear tone. Occasionally Circe would speak more softly than her companions which made the volume difficult to accurately determine, but otherwise the reading was perfect.
“Some people are like constellations that only touch the earth for a season“
I would suggest Circe to adults with an interest in the Greek myths. It’s drawings on popular tales and well researched plot lines will be more enjoyable if you have a basis of the original myths and histories of the time. Graphic scenes of rape, childbirth and murder should deter younger readers.
In conclusion, Circe is a powerful and thought provoking novel. The enchanting descriptions, carefully crafted characters and detailed references to Greek mythology make it an enjoyable read, let down only by the disjointed plot and pace.