Author: Madeline Miller
Publisher: Little Brown
Publishing Date: April 18, 2018
Number of Pages: 385
Genre: Fantasy, Mythology
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and the mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Bur Circe is a strange child – not obviously as powerful like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power – the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts, and crosses paths with many of the most figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur; Daedalus and his doomed son, Icarus; the murderous Medea; and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from or the mortals she has come to love.
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.” ~ Madeline Miller, Circe
A Villain and A Mother: Misunderstood Character
Ever since I encountered Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles in bookstores, the interest I had for her book was piqued especially that Greek mythology has a soft spot in my heart. However, I never got the chance to read her debut book considering the pile of unread books I already have. Nevertheless, when I learned that she is releasing a new book in 2018, I included it in my Most Anticipated Books list and by stroke of luck, I was able to cop myself a copy of Circe, Miller’s second published work.
Circe is the modern retelling of the story of one of the most vilified characters in Greek mythology. I mean, who have never heard of Circe; even those who have never read Greek mythology are familiar with her. Told through the first-person perspective of this feared villain, the story first walks us through Circe’s life in the house of his father, the god of son Helios. Possessing neither her father’s endless power nor her mother’s alluring beauty, she was often frowned upon by both of her parents. Circe nevertheless endeavored to be a dutiful daughter and worked hard as part of her father’s council.
But Circe wasn’t as powerless as she originally thought she was. People who have read Greek mythology all know that. Although all four children of Helios possessed the power of witchcraft and sorcery, it Circe who was made the scapegoat. She was instantly banished by the almighty Zeus because of her ability to transform anyone into monsters. Alone in her own island, she further mastered the art of the occult. Because of the strategic location of her island, she has encountered numerous prominent figures in mythology, including her vengeful niece Medea and the man who made her fall in love, Odysseus.
“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.” ~ Madeline Miller, Circe
But then again, we all know that. A simple search over the internet would yield numerous lore about Circe and her witchcraft. Her involvement with Odysseus, the big hero of the battle of Troy, also fed the appetite of many a writer. Witch and evil personified, she is one person you don’t want to encounter in Greek mythology (well, there is always Medusa) unless the idea of being turned into a pig appeals to you. Which brings me to the first point in this “literary” critique. The story felt too familiar. Yes, I was transported to a magical place but the story does feel like it was copied from the tomes of mythology. At least that was how it felt; I expected Miller would bring her own spin into Circe’s story, but I guess expected too much.
Albeit the novel’s failure to bring a fresher perspective, I was still riveted and captivated by the story. It was largely due to the way the story was written which was laden with nostalgia. I loved how Circe’s voice and tone evolved and matured as the story progressed. Moreover, there was a quality to her voice that was both magical and alluring, hypnotizing the readers into diving deeper into her story. It was devoid of the animosity but flourishing with tenderness and love.
At the heart of it, the novel is about changing perspective. Its biggest accomplishment lies in its depiction of a different Circe, a far cry from the vile and rogue witch that she has been endlessly portrayed. Hemmed in the pages of the book is the story of a dutiful child who yearns for the approval of a mother and father, of a young woman who hankers for love, and of a mother who tries her best to protect her biggest treasure. The tender moments of Circe being a mother is one of the novel’s biggest accomplishment. These vivid moments remained on my mind because it reminded me of the unconditional love mothers for their children.
“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
The story also reeked of feminism; not that there is anything wrong with. Circe took charge of her destiny, and of her life; she become a man, rather a woman of her own. Yes, she experienced moments of weakness, but she didn’t give up and built on what she have. In a world dominated by male gods and characters, her story shines bright, although it is mostly obscured because of the same male characters that are very prevalent in Greek mythology.
But there is more human to Circe than there is a witch. Circe committed her fair share of mistakes in her youth but as the story evolved, she became cognizant of the errs of her ways and tried redeeming herself; this is one of the most important facets of the story. In many an instance, characters are often dehumanized but in the novel’s case, Circe was de-vilified.
The power struggle between the Titans and the Olympians was also underlined. The story underlines the whims of the gods and the Titans and how they dictate the behaviors of the denizens; they are nothing but chess pieces which the gods can toy with anyway they like. Thankfully, most of the characters in the story were fully developed. They were amply described and depicted; they were tonics to the overwhelming presence of Circe.
“I had been old and stern for so long, carved with regrets and years like a monolith. But that was only a shape I had been poured into. I did not have to keep it.” ~ Madeline Miller, Circe
Madeline Miller painted an altogether different picture of the villain that is Circe. It was like reading a book version of the movie Maleficent. The novel did a great job in drawing a relatable character. To reiterate, the narrative did a great job of devilifying Circe; even gods, witches, and villains have feelings too. The novel barely did anything the move Circe’s story forward, but it did more than enough to bring forth a more “human” version of Circe by filling the story with tender moments. Circe’s voice lingers, and so does her story; it was more human and less villain.
Now I want to buy The Song of Achilles if just to gain a different perspective of Miller’s literary prowess.
Recommended for readers who want to know more about Greek mythology, readers who have a soft spot for mother-son interactions, readers who want to be wrapped up in the world of fantasy, readers who want to read a complex narrative that is simplified, and readers who are looking for pleasurable reads.
Not recommended for readers who are expecting a different Circe story, and readers who are not interested in fantasy and mythology.
About the Author
(Photo by Madeline Miller official website) Madeline Miller was born on July 24, 1978 in Boston but grew up in New York City and Philadelphia.
She took her bachelors and masters in Classics at Brown University, graduating in 2000 and 2001, respectively. After graduation, she taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students. She studied for a year at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought toward a PhD. From 2009 to 2010, she enrolled at the Yale School of Drama for an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism.
While teaching and endeavoring for further studies, Miller already started drafting the manuscript for what would be her debut novel. The Song of Achilles, published in September 2011, took her 10 years to complete. It went on to win the 17th annual Orange Prize for Fiction, making Miller just the fourth author to win on her debut. On April 18, 2018, her second novel, Circe was published.
She lives in Narberth, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.