Madeline Miller’s Circe is a book that I enjoyed so much that I wrote my honours thesis on it. It is a feminist retelling of the character Circe from Greek mythology, which is a topic that Miller is very acquainted with.
If you’re not familiar, Circe appears in the Odyssey as another trial for Odysseus to surpass on his way home. She is the daughter of the sun, Helios, and her powerful witchcraft exiled her to an island. In The Odyssey, Circe turns Odysseus’s men into pigs and Odysseus drinks a potion that makes him immune to her magic. After drawing a knife on her, he then seduces her and she is persuaded to free his men. She then consults an oracle to tell him where his journey must take him next.
While The Odyssey is her most famous appearance, Circe is a character with a rich mythology that Miller encapsulates wonderfully. She is not reduced to the “temptress” archetype, becoming a fully realised character. We watch as she goes from the “ugly duckling” of her family, to ultimately falling in love which leads to exile. We see her grow jaded on her island, left to the whims of men, and we watch her tenacity grow.
Miller uses Circe to explore the ways women are overlooked in Greek mythology. While mythological Circe is a powerhouse, she’s never written sympathetically and is defined by the men in her life. Miller makes clear the ways that men control Circe and the other women in the story. Circe was an outcast in her family of Titans and was thus singled out. Her sister Pasiphae was favoured, but was handed off to a husband as a peace treaty between Zeus and Helios. The women in this story are wonderfully flawed and distinct. Miller doesn’t erase the effect of the patriarchy in this book; she explores how women are affected by it. They play into or reject the rules prescribed to them.
No longer does Circe’s story revolve around Odysseus: the witch-goddess is her own hero. Along with her godly family, the cast of this novel includes some big Greek mythology names. Circe brings in characters like Athena and Hermes, and incorporates the myths of Jason & Medea, Daedalus & Icarus, the Minotaur, and more. Before reading it, I considered myself pretty well-versed in Greek mythos, but this book gave me so many new things to research.
Miller’s writing is like poetry. There’s a comforting, flowing quality to it that paints very vivid pictures. The text is laced with such gorgeous metaphors, descriptions, and symbolism that I didn’t mind reading it four times. I just love the way Miller describes Circe’s emotions and the development of her powers. It’s a female empowerment story, but not in a shallow way. Circe is flawed and complex, often making the wrong decision on her path to learning the right way. The trauma she experiences in her past cause her to lash out and not trust, but she learns to be better. She finds a way to exist as herself, not the person she is expected to be.
Circe is a beautifully evocative book that leaves you in a trance. The world of Greek mythology comes alive through Miller’s well-constructed words. It is a feminist take on stories that have not been kind to women, nonetheless, it does so without being preachy. I love this book with all my heart. It’s the best I could hope for from a modern take on Greek mythology. If you get the chance to read it, I highly recommend you do!
You can find Madeline Miller’s book on her website here.