Book Review: Circe, by Madeline Miller

Fairy tale retellings through a feminist lens have gotten super popular lately.  Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland…all of them have had eager authors writing them darker, edgier, stronger. That doesn’t mean they’ve all been done well.

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For a true reinvention of a classic myth, look no further than Circe, by Madeline Miller. It. Is. FANTASTIC. I read it in a day because I simply couldn’t put it down. (I was on vacation, sure, but still. One day!)

circe

Miller’s reinvention keeps many of the same beats as the original Greek myth. Circe is a nymph born to Perse, an oceanid, and Helios, Titan god of the sun. She has a talent for witchcraft, which gets her into trouble. She eventually is banished to an island, where she lives a solitary life amongst the lions and wolves. When sailors land or are shipwrecked there, she turns them into pigs. She meets Odysseus and seduces him into staying on her island for a year.

This leaves a lot of blank space as to who Circe really is, what motivates her, what her thoughts and hopes and fears consist of. And it’s in those blank spaces that Miller’s creation really shines. Her Circe is a lonely, unloved child, not-quite god and not-quite human, roaming the immortal halls of her parents desperate for some emotional connection amongst the perfect, cold Titans and nymphs. She finds it briefly in the tortured Prometheus, punished in front of all Titans for the sin of bringing fire to man, who bestows to her the words that will come to define her:

Not every god need be the same.

Circe falls in love with a human man, which doesn’t turn out well for either of them. In the process, though, she discovers that she is capable of great power: she can use pharmaka, or knowledge of herbs and flowers, to create magic. In short, she is a witch. She’s also thoughtful and kind, reflective of her mistakes, by turns confident and self-loathing–all concepts seemingly alien to the gods she grew up with. She is eventually banished to the island of Aiaia, where she dedicates herself to the hard work that is witchcraft. Circe, denied power through the usual methods, reaches out and grasps it for herself.

Circe Invidiosa, by John William Waterhouse

Circe Invidiosa, by John William Waterhouse

The fact that Circe is exiled doesn’t prevent others from visiting her, and it reads like a Who’s Who of Greek mythology (which, to a childhood fan of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths like myself, was like seeing old friends again). Hermes, Athena, and other gods come by to deliver dire prophecies or just to chat. Jason, Medea, Daedalus, and of course, most famously, Odysseus also find themselves on Aiaia, seeking assistance from its resident witch. Her relationship with Odysseus feels real, as she moves from seeing only the clever, charismatic man that he is, to realizing that he can be capricious, cold, and take life for granted. Through Odysseus, Circe begins to make the changes that will result in her defying gods and casting the most powerful magic of her life.

If I have any complaints, it’s that it can start to feel that Miller is indulging a bit too much in Circe’s suffering. At some points–specifically, the section where the first crew of sailors arrive on her island–I did have to stop and take a breather, because Miller is a talented writer who makes you feel Circe’s terror, her pain, and at times her helplessness. It’s purposeful, in order to propel Circe to the next phase of her life, but that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant to read.

That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.

Circe’s (and by extension, Miller’s) thoughts on godhood and humanity are interesting, genuine, and beautifully-written. Circe is partially divine, yet doesn’t fear pain–or wallow in the pain of others–like other gods do. Since she is missing that godly “spark” that her siblings have, she’s willing to work hard and tirelessly to accomplish things, and to make mistakes that she admits and learns from. She walks between both worlds, and it gives her a perspective that eventually leads her to realize, for good or ill, that humans’ willpower, their emotion, even their mortality holds more meaning for her.

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Circe, by John William Waterhouse

Despite, or perhaps because of, all of the pain that she has endured and triumphed over, Circe earns a happy ending. Happiest of all, she is a fully-realized individual who has faced down gods to earn the things that she wanted most–not power, not godhood, but a simple and fulfilling life with the people who love her. Her deepest strength comes from being able to walk away from power and choose something more meaningful.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “‘A thousand times I saw you squashed. I squashed you myself. And every time, I thought, that is it, she is done, she will cry herself into a stone, into some croaking bird, she will leave us and good riddance. Yet always you came back the next day. They were all surprised when you showed yourself a witch, but I knew it long ago. Despite your wet-mouse weeping, I saw how you would not be ground into the earth. You loathed them as I did. I think it is where our power comes from.’”
Other Reviews: Rhapsody in Books, Girls in Capes, Kirkus

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