Circe by Madeline Miller is another one of her amazing novelizations of the life of a famous (or infamous) character from Greek mythology. I had previously read The Song of Achilles, a heart-wrenching book about the most famous tragic gay love story of antiquity, that of Achilles and Patroclus (told mostly from the perspective of the latter). While The Song of Achilles can be described as a gay male equivalent of a “bodice ripper” (“jockstrap stretcher”?), featuring one of the most celebrated heroes of all time, Circe is about a less well-known and decidedly less well-regarded antihero. The genius of Miller is that she uses the protagonists of her books and their interactions with the Greek pantheon to depict mythological stories and legends as real events and occasions in the lives of her characters. Because her research is impeccable and her knowledge of the mythology is so vast, Miller is able to weave stories that readers have heard of together with others that we haven’t into a seamless, compelling whole that is educational, emotive and engaging.
All I remember knowing about Circe before reading Circe is that she was a sorceress (i.e. witch!) who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs after they landed on her island when they were sailing back from the Trojan War. She and Odysseus “hooked up” and this delayed his return to his long-suffering wife Penelope by several years. While all of that is known, Miller starts her story of Circe’s immortal life much earlier, informing us of her subject’s relationships to the more central gods of Greek mythology. Circe was the daughter of Helios, the Titan god of the Sun. The Titans, you may or may not remember, were the primordial gods who existed before the Olympians. They were led by Cronus (who had taken over by killing his father Uranus) and thus tried mightily to prevent the same thing happening to him by swallowing and imprisoning all the children he had with his fellow Titan, Rhea. However Rhea helped her favored son Zeus escape this fate and so it did come to pass that eventually Cronus’s son did usurp his father to become the King of the Gods and ruler of Olympus after the Olympians won a Great War with the Titans. The point of this background is to put Circe’s life in context; she was the daughter of a defeated Titan (Helios) and a sea nymph (Perses) who was always in the shadow of the now-ascendant Olympians and also her (evil) elder twin siblings Aeëtes and Pasiphaë. So although Circe grew up in godly dominions and in proximity to divinity she was only a demigod herself and even her godhood was of a secondary nature, since it was from a Titan, not an Olympian. In other words she was always perceived (and perceived herself) as an outsider.
Early in her life, Circe discovers that she has powerful magical abilities through the use of herbs and incantations. Unfortunately, at a young age she uses these powers to break an important rule, by elevating a mere mortal she has a crush on to become a god (a status higher than she herself has) and turning a rival of hers into a horrible monster. When her bad behavior was revealed, an agreement was reached between Helios and Zeus to punish her by exiling her to a private, remote (but verdant) island for the rest of her very long life.
Miller provides us context and rationale for Circe’s actions, so the reader begins to understand why she does some of the objectively horrible things she does. We also learn more about her siblings, and they are most definitely even worse. Her sister Pasiphaë births the monstrous Minotaur of Crete (after having sex with her husband's prized bull and gets a dispensation from their father to let Circe be released from her island exile to act as her sister’s midwife). Her brother Aeëtes committed murderous atrocity after murderous atrocity to protect the Golden Fleece well before Jason and the Argonauts show up. I don’t think Miller excuses Circe’s bad actions, exactly, but we definitely learn Circe’s side of the story, especially in the most well-known tale involving her, namely that of her relationship with Odysseus and their son Telegonus.
Overall, the experience of reading Miller’s Circe is highly recommended for anyone who ever spent time in a library researching the various lives and family trees of the Greek and Roman gods. It’s an engrossing and enjoyable way to experience mythology.
Ultimately, if you have already read The Song of Achilles then Circe compares somewhat unfavorably with that masterpiece, but there’s very few books that don’t. (If you haven’t read The Song of Achilles yet, what are you waiting for, a sign from the gods? Get to it!) That said, Miller does as good a job as one can do with an antihero like Circe as protagonist. I can’t wait to read whatever story/tale/myth she decides to tell an entire book about next!
Author: Madeline Miller.
Length: 433 pages.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company.
Date Published: April 04, 2018.
Date Read: July 29, 2021.
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).