Circe
Madeline Miller

NOTE: I’m assuming a basic level of familiarity with Greek mythology. If the names and vocabulary are confusing, Google is your friend.

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.


POV: You started writing a review of Circe, and you sold yourself on the book so well that you had to start reading it a third time, you know, just to make sure everything you were saying about it was right. Look, I couldn’t help myself. The book is so good, and The Song of Achilles gave me a massive Greek mythology hangover, just like it always does. I have to admit that I do like Achilles just slightly better, but both of these books are about as close to miracles as we’re going to get on this good earth, and I will never stop trying to force my friends to read them. (Some people might call that a threat. I call it a great fucking reason to make friends with me.)

Circe is narrated from start to finish by the titular goddess, a minor deity born to the Titan Helios and the naiad Perse. Though she is the daughter of the sun, this in itself is not a remarkable achievement: her father has about a million other children with a million other women, and is always ready to make more. Amidst a literal sea of beautiful, magical offspring, Circe is considered plain, powerless, and utterly disappointing. She grows up in the shadows of her three younger siblings (Pasiphaë, Perses, and Aeëtes), and is abandoned by all of them when they move on to better things than their father’s court: Pasiphaë marries King Minos of Crete and gives birth to the Minotaur; Perses moves to Persia, where he becomes a necromancer; Aeëtes is made king of Colchis, where he tames dragons and hoards treasures, including the golden fleece later stolen by Jason of Iolcos. Left to her own devices, Circe finds herself with no hobbies, no friends, and a lot of empty time on her hands.

It is in this state, lonely and bored, that she befriends a human man named Glaucos. Their friendship seems like it might become something more, but their budding romance is cut short when Circe, frenzied with the knowledge that Glaucos is a mortal and will eventually die, begins to experiment with a forbidden branch of magic called pharmaka. While she does succeed in turning him into a god, his newfound divinity turns his head, and he quickly abandons her in favor of a more classically beautiful nymph named Scylla. His defection leaves Circe exactly where she started, but now with a dangerous amount of jealous resentment and the beginnings of her own latent magical abilities. After she turns Scylla into a monster (more or less unintentionally), her emerging powers lead the Olympians to brand her a witch, along with her siblings, who all use the same brand of magic. Where her siblings pretend to have discovered their magic by accident, however, Circe loudly announces hers in front of her father’s court, and is promptly banished to the remote island of Aiaia to spend the rest of her days thinking about what she’s done.

This is supposed to be a punishment, but it has the opposite effect. Freed from the constraints of her father’s court and her myriad of asshole relatives, Circe discovers a level of independence she has never known in the manor set up by her father. Despite her exile, her island sees a steady stream of guests: Hermes visits regularly, both as her first lover and as a news-bearer; Daedalus arrives on her shores to collect her when Pasiphaë demands her assistance with the birth of the Minotaur; Jason and Medea briefly seek refuge after stealing the golden fleece from Aeëtes. Through it all, Circe retains an almost childlike wonder for the mortals with whom she otherwise rarely interacts, but this innocence is shattered when she is violently raped by a guest she had welcomed with open arms. As they say, it only takes one asshole to ruin things for everybody else, and – with a few exceptions – the sailors who land on Aiaia after the incident generally find themselves turned into pigs before they can do any harm. Thus Odysseus arrives at her house one fine day in the middle of his ten-year battle to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War, only to find that she has already turned his men into pigs.

This is not a promising start to any relationship, but Odysseus manages to charm her into releasing his men, and they start a year-long affair. While Odysseus’s adventure draws to a close, however, Circe’s biggest trouble begins when she gives birth to a son, Telegonus. Owing to a prophecy that he will grow up to kill his father, Telegonus is targeted at once by Athena, who makes repeated attempts to kill him throughout his infancy. Circe, who has spent her life getting kicked around by more powerful gods and is thoroughly sick of their bullshit (particularly when it concerns her son), manages to keep Athena from invading the island by means of an enchanted barrier that has to be renewed every month. Meanwhile Telegonus grows from a destructive child to a thoughtful, inquisitive young man, and, as he grows older, he begins to ask about his father. His desire to meet Odysseus kicks off a series of events that leads to Odysseus’s death, and then to the arrival of Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus’s widow and older son, on Aiaia. After a final confrontation with Athena, Telegonus leaves Aiaia in pursuit of glory; Circe blackmails her father into ending her exile, and she and Telemachus set out to forge a new life together. The book ends with her drinking a draught like the ones she used on Scylla and Glaucos, with the understanding that it will turn her into a human.

My most obvious thought is holy crap, I want Circe’s island. I am more than ready to offend the Olympians if the penalty is banishment to an isolated island where I can spend all my time on my personal projects without having to go anywhere, talk to anybody, or answer any kind of message. I wouldn’t even have to go to the store or clean the house, because the pantry refills itself and dust never accumulates. In exile, Circe spends her days roaming her island, experimenting with her magic, and chilling with lions and wolves. She develops a spell to turn unwanted male visitors into pigs, and, while I don’t like the reason she had to develop the spell in the first place, this is a power I wouldn’t mind having. Her perfect solitude is marred somewhat when exasperated gods begin to send their troublesome nymph daughters to live with her, but overall her life is serious goals. (I personally would’ve turned those nymphs into rocks and made myself a stone garden, but that’s just me.)

My second thought is that, even though the book is eventful and I definitely skipped a lot in my synopsis, it never feels cluttered. The writing is beautiful, concise, and, above all, clear. I don’t have trouble following the story or keeping track of the characters. As with The Song of Achilles, it helps to have an entry-level knowledge of Greek mythology – if nothing else, just for the sake of appreciating the deftness of this particular retelling – but the book explains itself well enough that I don’t think this is absolutely necessary. And, while her adherence to the original mythology is water-tight, Miller has managed to strike the perfect balance between faithfully representing the source material while adding some new material of her own. The first time I read this, I genuinely was not expecting Circe to strike off on a mission to take down Scylla. Despite all the time she spends roasting the other gods and bemoaning her own divinity, I wasn’t expecting her to find a way to renounce it. I can’t say I had any particular in-depth knowledge of the mythological Circe when I picked up the book, but, even so, Miller’s innovations add a freshness that is sorely lacking in other retellings. Circe’s rage is neither ineffectual or pointless; she takes that rage and she uses it, and I really respect that.

In general I like Miller’s handling of the female characters, even the unsavory ones. Unlike with other retellings, they are the centers of their own stories; their relevance does not rely on the things that are done to them by men. Even Pasiphaë, who takes up very little of the narrative and has basically no redeeming features, is given more agency than I have seen in another version of her. Granted, her motives aren’t great and her actions are frequently deplorable, but they do seem to be her own. Her interest in the Minotaur is purely self-motivated, which is an improvement over her depiction in Ariadne (Jennifer Saint), in which she is a broken pawn brainwashed by a god and shattered by her monstrous child. Miller’s Pasiphaë is a nasty piece of work, but I’ll take that over a helpless nymph any day. I was also pleased with the relationship between Circe and Penelope, which, though initially acrimonious, gradually evolves into mutual respect and then friendship. Penelope’s ending is absolutely perfect; I truly would not have wished better for her. I was a little weirded out by the Circe/Telemachus romance, but, well, that’s the original mythology kicking in, and at the very least they look like contemporaries, even if she’s about 1,000 years older than he is. At the very least I am grateful that Telegonus does not marry Penelope, as he does in the Telegony, because that would’ve been beyond fucked up.

If there’s one thing I wish was slightly better, it is the marking of time, because it really is not clear to me how much time goes by over the course of the book; but on the other hand, perhaps this was the point. Circe and the other gods don’t have a strong sense of time because they are not bound by it, and there’s not much point in keeping a calendar when you live forever. The book as a whole is so loose and unchained, and, while such episodic novels don’t always do it for me, in this case it works so well with its protagonist. Even if the story drags in places, it doesn’t seem out of step with the theme of the book. The only thing that didn’t work quite as well was the ease with which the Athena arc was resolved, because it wrapped up just a little too quickly for my liking. I can accept that the Olympians are impatient children demanding instant gratification, but the resolution to that particular conflict was too abrupt to be entirely satisfying.

Slightly rushed ending notwithstanding, this is still one of my favorite mythological retellings of all time, coming in a very close second just after The Song of Achilles. This is purely personal taste; the books are equal in quality, but I personally prefer the structure and pacing of Achilles. With that said, Circe is still sharp, inventive, beautifully told. It is a book I will read (and have read) over and over and over, and, if we ever become friends, you may be sure that I will try to make you read it too.