Book review and synopsis for Circe by Madeline Miller, an elegant and delightful retelling of Greek mythological tales.
Circe is the daughter of Helios, God of the Sun, and Perse, an Oceanid nymph. Despite her divinity, she is less beautiful and lacks the skills of her siblings, so she is largely shunned and ridiculed among the godly.
When she falls in love with a mortal who, of course, is fated to age and die, she is desperate enough to experiment with a different and illicit type of power -- potions and witchcraft, and with it she discovers her own ability to bend the world to her will.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummarySection-by-Section SummarySee the Section-by-Section Summary of CirceQuick Plot Summary
Circe is born a God, the daughter of a Titan and a water nymph. However, she lacks the powers of her siblings and is less beautiful. They treat her unkindly, except for Aeëtes, but he is granted a kingdom and leaves.
Circe falls in love with Glaucos, a mortal fisherman. In hopes of making Glaucos immortal, Circe learns about illicit Pharmaka, herbs endowed with power that only grow where Gods have fallen. She transforms Glaucos into a Sea-God, but he soon becomes enamored with the beautiful but malicious Scylla. Circe turns Scylla into a sea monster.
Circe is exiled to the empty island of Aiaia for her use of witchcraft, and there she hones her knowledge of herbs and magic. One day, Daedalus, a famed mortal craftsman, arrives at Aiaia, requesting help for Pasiphaë, Circe's sister. In Knossos, Pasiphaë gives birth to a Minotaur. Circe uses magic to manage its hunger, and Daedalus builds it a labyrinthine cage. Daedalus is forced to help because they have his son, Icarus. Daedalus later tries to build wings to help his son escape Knossos, but Icarus flies too close to the sun and dies. Daedalus later dies from old age.
Next, Medea (Aeëtes's daughter) and Jason, arrive at Aiaia, asking to be cleansed. Medea has murdered her own brother and used magic to help Jason acquire a golden fleece. Circe warns Medea that Jason's feeling for Medea will wane now that she is no longer useful to him, and Medea angrily departs.
Later, Alke, the daughter of a lesser river lord, is sent to serve Circe, now known as the Witch of Aiaia, as a punishment. Soon, others adopt the idea and send their troublesome daughters there, too. One day, sailors show up. Circe offers them food, but the captain attacks her so turns them into pigs. Other sailors go to Aiaia when they hear of the island of Nymphs. At first Circe attempts to suss out if they are honest men, but Circe eventually assumes they are all dishonest and turns them all into pigs.
One day, Odysseus and his men arrive. He has an herb that prevents Circe from harming him. She finds him charming, sleeps with him and promises not to harm him. For a year, he stays as he mends his ship. Circe knows he is married, but she yearns for him to stay. Before he leaves, Circe sends him to a prophet and warns about the obstacles in his trip home (Scylla, etc.).
But Circe is pregnant and her mortal son, Telegonus, is soon born. Athena wants the child dead and offers her eternal blessings in exchange, but Circe refuses. Instead, Circe uses powerful magic to protect the island. Telegonus grows up, but longs to visit his father. Circe finally relents and helps him gather protections for the journey. She agrees to suffer eternal pain to acquire a deadly weapon, the tail of Trygon, a sea god. But Trygon ultimately doesn't extract the price and simply tells her to return it when she's done.
Telegonus leaves for Ithaca, but returns quickly because Odysseus is dead. Odysseus misunderstood his intentions and fought him instead, scratching himself on the Trygon's tail. Circe realizes that Athena wanted Telegonus dead to prevent this. Telegonus has also brought Telemachus (Odysseus’s other son) and Penelope (Odysseus’s wife) to the island. Penelope is worried Athena will claim Telemachus in Odysseus's absence and hopes for Circe's protection. Circe uses her magic to protect them, but Athena makes her demands. She wants Telemachus to leave and start an empire, but he has no desire for glory and power. However, Telegonus longs for adventure, and he accepts instead.
With Telegonus gone, Circe calls for her father, demanding that he talk to Zeus and release her from exile. She threatens to tell Zeus the Titans' secrets and start a war. Free to leave, Circe and Telemachus go to turn Scylla into stone, and Circe confides in Telemachus all her secrets. (Telemachus fills her in on what ended up happening with Medea — Jason married another. Medea kills the new wife and murders her children. A golden chariot whisks her home.) Penelope becomes an expert on herbs and becomes the Witch of Aiaia instead.
The book ends with Circe making a potion to bring forth her true self. She then has a vision of herself as a mortal, growing old with Telemachus. She drinks the potion.
For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.