This post contains affiliate links.
Circe goes back to the roots of Western literature, Ancient Greek mythology. In particular, the tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey. In Odysseus’ travels, one of the islands he stops at is Aiaia, owned by a witch, or sorcerer, Circe. Miller takes this minor character and spins a tale out of her, from her birth to what happens after the Odyssey.
Circe is written in an ultra-addictive, contemporary voice that retains the grandeur of the Classics. The result is a luxuriant, highly enjoyable story that takes its time through multiple epics, yet at the same time remains an easy read. The novel spans a millennia or more, moving from Circe’s early years amongst the gods in her father Helios and grandfather Oceanos’ halls to the isolation of her island where she moves increasingly towards mortals as time goes on.
Miller pays homage to the traditions of Circe’s age, describing the gods’ timelessness in lush prose, comparing the sound of their laughter to water bubbling over rocks, their movements to wind among grasses. It is rare nowadays to find a contemporary novel that offers the indulgence of the Classics.
In the beginning, Circe is awed by the gods’ immortality. She spends several lifetimes trying to win her father’s favour, while she is scorned by her fellow nymphs.
As the novel progresses, Circe discovers witchcraft, and in particular, her talent at transforming things. In a fit of jealousy, Circe turns a fellow nymph, Scylla, into a monstrous, octopus-like figure who spends the next several hundred years eating the crew of any ship that passes her cave.
All these are well-known Classical events—the difference is that Miller takes us into Circe’s head, makes her the protagonist of her own story.
Beyond The Odyssey, not much is known of Circe. This is where Miller works her magic.
A major theme throughout the many stories in Circe is her perception of mortality as well as feminism.
Through Circe, the Ancient gods are humanised, even humbled. We see repeatedly their pride and callousness with mortals and with one another. In Classical literature, these traits are seen as symptomatic of godliness—the utter disdain for weakness, for life. But with Circe, she sees how their license for pettiness marks them as childish; their immortality the cause of their inability to treasure anything. In contrast, the fragility of mortals makes them kind, warm and all the more alive for their mortality. Mortals bow to her, but Circe envies them. As Odysseus’ remarks, Circe is a god who most disdains her immortality.
One of The Odyssey’s morals is guarding against the sheer ugliness of humanity that would destroy them. If not for the gods’ constant intervention, humanity’s own weaknesses and avarice would have wiped itself out. Even Odysseus, in his heroism, cannot control his pride. In the beginning of Circe, Circe scorns people too. Her time among the gods makes men look pitiful and washed out when she encounters them. Yet, after several centuries of exile, she starts to see that the opposite is true. Men, with their scars and lines are what she longs for. The novel sings praises of imperfection as a rare, treasured grace. The diction changes—immortality becomes a tired burden, humanness a blessing.
“I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”Madeline Miller, Circe
In the end, Circe longs for mortality, searches it out, and finds herself in it.
Secondly, Circe addresses the misogyny and patriarchy in The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Many scholars and casual readers alike have criticised the portrayal and expectations surrounding women in these ancient epics. Men are lauded for their heroism. Heroism being defined by the amount of men they kill, the number of women they sleep with and ambiguous traits like pride and brutality. Women on the other hand, are expected to be impossibly chaste (Penelope, for instance). Even in Circe, daughters are punished and scorned for the slightest flaw, while sons are never punished. And for the women who did not fit into any of the categories? Circe, the wayward daughter, witch and sorcerer, is sentenced to eternal exile at the whim of the gods.
In The Odyssey, Circe is describe as an overly sexual, mystical figure surrounded by her animals. She is painted as exotic and as a slut—simply because the men do not—refuse to—understand her.
In Circe, Circe’s father is self-obsessed, her mother and the other nymphs excessively vain to the point of cruelty. Society rewards these traits with worship, godliness, fame. Only Circe is kind, and gets ostracised and penalised for this. There are unjust double standards on all sides: for men and women, for the (what should be objectively) good and the bad.
In Circe, Miller addresses these double standards. Through relating Circe’s side of the story, Circe is humanised and becomes someone we can relate to. In The Odyssey, she turns men into pigs because she is a nasty sorcerer. In Circe, the fact that she is a woman alone in the company of men turns her ‘sorcery’ into self-defence. What should’ve been obvious takes a woman and a couple thousand years to be pointed out. Indeed, in contemporary society, the unspoken license men have with women force women to perform acts that backfire on them. The common ‘a woman is a stone-cold bitch if she says no and a slut if she says yes’ goes back to the roots of civilisation, and in Miller’s criticism of this is biting if indirect.
It is also interesting that the topic of motherhood is one of the main tropes in Circe. Only in her motherhood does time finally slow down and dilate, an experience foreign to most gods, eternal as they are. Motherhood is one of the main catalysts for transformation in the end. Only with her son do we see Circe undergo remarkable personal growth within a short period of time. Other than her own son, Circe clicks most with Penelope and Telemachus, a mother and son pair. She also keeps the company of a lioness for a hundred or so years, a constant, if silent, figure in the story. The lioness not only protects Circe loyally, she is a mother herself to many. The lioness is a powerful but gentle and misunderstood figure, by many of her guests, just like Circe herself.
Besides critiquing the misogyny in the Classics, Miller proceeds to pay homage to womanhood through its most powerful aspect: motherhood. Miller reminds us that of the importance, beauty and strength of women. In themselves, women deserve the respect that the Classics—indeed society—have denied them
A common question: Why study the Classics?
In the Classics, as in our contemporary society, the same problems and corruption reign—misogyny, patriarchy and the success of those who do not deserve it. Literature is an examination of the human condition, and in the Classics, we see that these issues are indeed universal and timeless. It is also through literature, like Miller’s rewriting of these epics, that we see the way these problematics can be redeemed, and hopefully, corrected.
From the epics celebrating the glory of gods and men, Miller spins a tale which ultimately celebrates the fragility of humanity and the incredible force that is womanhood. Circe is a re-creation as well as a redemption.
You can get your copy of this incredible, must-read book here.