Circe by Madeline Miller

Spoiler Alert: May contain mild spoilers.

If you enjoy retelling of Greek and Roman myths, then Madeline Miller’s luminous novel Circe may be for you. Miller’s story spans thousands of years, a tale told from the point of view of the witch Circe, daughter of the Titan sungod Helios and a sea nymph named Perse. Miller probes the layers of Greek myths and strings stories together like luminous pearls on a strand of gossamer, as Circe experiences the events as both an observer and a participant.

Helios, a Titan, is still around because he and his siblings betrayed Chronos and threw in with the Olympians, turning the tide of a pivotal battle. To be fair, Chronos was eating his children at the time. The Titans do not love their offspring. Progeny are threats, weapons, tools or bargaining chips. The Olympians are not much better, although it does seem like they can love. Circe, the fourth child of Perse and Helios, adores her father, but is mocked and belittled by her siblings and relatives for her ungodlike voice and her looks. Over time, Circe discovers that she is not exactly a goddess, but a witch. Along with the spark of magic that gives her witch power, there is a spark of defiance that grows as she gets older, and soon Circe has defied both her father and an order from Zeus, and she is exiled to the island of Aiaia.

Miller’s prose, line by line, is beautiful and economical. The images are gorgeous, and they delineate character. For instance, Circe describes the obsidian hallways of her father’s home; Helios loves the way the volcanic glass reflects his glory. “Of course, he did not consider how black it might be when he was gone. My father was never able to imagine the world without himself in it.”

That’s pretty much all you really need to know about Helios.

Circe’s story begins long before the journey (or even the birth) of Odysseus, and continues after he has left her island. Throughout the story, the Titans, the Olympians and even humans underestimate and dismiss Circe, but she spends her life learning, gathering her power, and in the end she triumphs. Near the very end of the book, she confronts her narcissistic father once and for all, and prevails.

Another female character who grows and develops in this book is Odysseus’s wife Penelope. We’re used to seeing Penelope as the wise, crafty and loyal wife of Odysseus, basically acting as a placeholder while her war-loving, philandering husband has his adventures. Miller approaches the queen of Ithaca from another angle as well, providing a character who is deep and refreshingly different.

In two places (one near the end) Miller dips into old-fashioned tropes, and that was a bit of a disappointment. Circe is (of course) raped by a human man, because of course. Circe has already become wary of the behavior of the man and his crew, and has already dosed them with a potion that will make them sleep (or make them change, which you’ll understand if you remember the story of Circe). Because This is What Happens to Women, the captain of the bad men manages to rape her before she can activate the spell. It might be that Miller believes strongly that Circe needs to be actually violated to make the sleep/transformation spell justified… or, simply that she believes This is What Happens to Women.

The second dependence on an often-toxic trope is at the very end, and it works much better. In the final pages of the book, Circe has won her freedom form Aiaia and has a choice to make. She has fallen in love with a human man. The choice she makes is the most common one; a powerful woman gives up her power for love. This could have been really annoying, except that what Circe chooses to give up is her divinity, and her reasons (given her sense of the nature of gods) are excellent ones. In fact, much of the witchcraft Circe practices, as she explains to Penelope, is craft. She has not forsaken all her power at the end.

Whether it is for the characterization, the slant on old, old stories that we think we know, or simply beautiful, liquid prose, Circe is excellent and you should read it.

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