The Greek myths are some of the most fantastic epics of Western culture, and although their legends of battling monsters, gods toying with mortals, and the rigidity of the Fates has become a fairy tale rather than a religion, they endure.
Here is the second of three authors that have shaped these ancient stories into something more relatable without losing the magic.
Circe by Madeline Miller is an epic, as is the character’s due since Circe is one of the most enduring figures in Western literature, who’s been altered and adapted to the shifting culture.
The first accounts of this minor goddess, a nymph, are from Homer’s Odyssey. One of the thousands of nymph daughter’s of the sun-god Helios, living in a posh house on a Mediterranean island where she practices witchcraft, transforming men into pigs, and seducing the hero. In retellings of this classic, other characters fall by the wayside, but Circe remains. Even beyond Odysseus, the character Circe appears in other stories for thousands of years, her witchcraft and transformational powers of men to beasts being her steady thread, while her timeline, paramour, children, enemies, and motivation changes with the moral drive of the author. Even DC and Marvel have their own versions of the witch in comics.
In this most modern retelling by Miller, we are brought back to the first source.
The story of Circe takes place in the Ancient Greek timeline when the Titans and Olympian gods ruled over Western Europe’s humanity, a tense truce between the old and new. We begin with Circe’s birth and end with a prophecy of her death, all first-person narrative, told as if we were sitting in Circe’s beautiful home, drinking wine and listening, while she both weaves the thread on her loom and the story of her life. From the very beginning of the tale, Circe tries to understand gods, humans, and her place in the world:
“[This is how mortals found fame: through practice and diligence,] tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun, but gods are made of Ichor and nectar, their excellence is already bursting from their fingertips, so they find their fame in proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters, all that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our alters; it leaves only ash behind.”
Circe’s voice is modern poetic. Miller writes in gorgeous prose, but never loses her character’s sincerity. She is believable and sympathetic as a female in a male-dominated world, where the gods can not only be as horrendous and violent as humans but use their powers to inflict unimaginable horror and dominance. The gods are not tempered by death and danger, and the victims can be tortured, literally, forever. The female gods suffered or adapted in many ways. Circe was slow to accept her lot in life and even slower to find how to defend herself, and ultimately triumph on her own terms.
“Timidity creates nothing,” is one of my favorite quotes from Circe’s sister, Pasiphae, a bully when they were younger, but with a complex story of survival of her own we only glimpse in her few scenes. Circe is a gentle soul who cannot play the “game” of the gods, which leads to heartbreak and exile. She tried to be good and loyal to her family, but as Pasiphae (the mother of the Minotaur) explains, “There is no reward for obedience.”
We meet the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece through Circe’s eyes, and they are usually wanting. After her exile on the island, Hermes, the messenger god, is the only one who can visit. “He was a harp with one string and the note it played was of himself.” Being mostly alone proves to be Circe’s salvation and where she learns her witchcraft. Our heroine seems helpless and passive for much of the tale, beholden to the greater powers, but witchcraft does not fit into the world she grew up in, and through diligence (something gods know nothing about) she finds how to protect herself and ultimately, those she loves.
“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.”
Humans, unlike gods, are a compelling mystery to Circe from the beginning scene where she talks with her Uncle Prometheus, the god who brought humans fire and was tortured forever because of it, curious why he would suffer for the lowly mortals. She meets several humans in her thousands of years of existence, including, yes, Odysseus.
It was interesting reading the book, wondering when the guy would show up, considering his tale was the reason her character exists. He’s a little more than half-way through, and changes her future forever, though not in any way either could have envisioned at the time.
The Fates play a frustratingly powerful role in all the ancient myths and Circe’s life. No one can escape them, things are preordained. It is only when she visits an ancient being from before even the Titans, that a different possibility enters her thinking. I listened to Circe, read by Perdita Weeks, as an audiobook, with Weeks musing English accent seeping into my dreams. I was as frustrated and angry as Circe by her lot in life, probably because so many women are “exiled” into a false sense of independence, where we toil and nurture and create until (usually) a man comes by and ruins everything simply because our culture says he can.
Perhaps that is why Circe continues to captivate storytellers and listeners: whether her power to transform men into pigs is a mirror, a warning (for men or women depending on the retelling), or something else, she is a woman of power.
Even with Circe in exile, there are plenty of characters in this book. Fourteen out of 35 speaking characters were female, that’s 40%, a good number compared to the average in our current media. I highly recommend this book, especially the audio version, for YA and up. There is violence (it’s the Greek myths!) and sex happens, but nothing is descriptive. However, the tone and subject would be appreciated by a more mature audience. Knowing the ancient myths is helpful to compare, but certainly not necessary to enjoy Circe.
(See my previous post on the Myths and Legends Podcast to hear a retelling of the originals.)
The only problem is that finishing Circe leaves a huge gap, that sadness when something great has ended. What do you do when you finish a gem of a book? Find another one: (next week: The Cold Is In her Bones by Peternelle van Arsdale.)