By Madeline Miller, An elegant and delightful retelling of Greek mythological tales
Circe, by Madeline Miller, came out early last year, and I’ve been keen to find time for it, so it seemed like a good book to kick off the spring season.
It’s a re-telling the story of Circe, a character originated circa 8th century B.C. by Homer. In Homer’s in The Odyssey, Odysseus encounters her on the island of Aeaea where she is villainously doling out dangerous potions and turning men into pigs.
While in her original incarnation she’s mostly an obstacle to be overcome, in Miller’s reinvented tale, she’s given a new life, as well as a meaningful and imaginative story deeply rooted in a myriad of 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.
A while back, I took a trip to Greece and visited one of the locations that appears briefly in the book, the remains of Minos’s Palace at Knossos in Crete. It was about a hour out from where we were staying, so we had to rent a car, and it was a whole mess, but I desperately wanted to see it.
I’ve come across other references to this site then, but Circe was the first book that ever made me reminisce about it. Reading Circe, I could imagine that crumbling Minoan archaeological site, thousands upon thousands of years old, as a living, breathing palace, gleaming with splendor and marveling that I’d once walked those walkways as well.
Miller’s mythological retelling is so dazzlingly alive. She uses Circe’s story to bring in a whole host of other mythologies, ranging from the Titanomachy (“battle of the Titans”) to the Gift of Fire, various other parts of the Odyssey and so on. The events of these stories all overlap, one washing over the next, intertwining in a delightful and inventive manner. Under Miller’s imaginative gaze, these classic stories are endowed with a newfound energy. Fleshed-out and lively, it’s a pleasure to read, especially if you’re someone who loves mythological tales.
The most difficult part of reading Circe for me was that it took forever because whenever a mention of any character came up, I was always tempted to look them up on Wikipedia to see what parts of their story originate from where. This inevitably led me down deep, and I mean deep, rabbit holes of endless Wikipedia entries and other sources filled with mythological esoterica. (But honestly, I’d consider that a feature, not a bug, when it comes to reading).
Themes and Character Development
By the second half of the book, Circe has been alive for over a thousand years. She becomes more reflective about her experiences during various interludes, and certainly when Circe’s story takes a darker turn. At those junctions, Miller is thoughtful and introspective. In the book’s more somber moments, Miller explores Circe’s loneliness, alienation, and how her perceptions may have been warped by her experiences or misunderstandings.
Through the relationship of the gods, Titans, Olympians, lesser gods, mortals and so forth, the book contemplates the meaning of having power, how power is derived and how power effects how people relate to each other. Furthermore, using a range of classic Greek Myths to tell a story provides the perfect foundation and a wide berth to delve into fundamental questions about morals and goodness and pragmatism and ambition and balancing it all with the need to survive and protect yourself.
I loved what a complete character Circe is. She is a complex, imperfect and is consistently drawn in a way that grounds her in reality, despite her divine origins.
Read it or Skip it?
I loved this book. I loved this book so much, it actually surprises me how strongly I feel about it. If you like mythology, Circe is a must read, no caveats. It is such a vivid and wonderful story that brings together so many bits and pieces of Greek mythology and somehow turns them into a cohesive book that is well worth your time. It is all at once thoughtful and entertaining and elegantly written. I was delighted by it.
If you aren’t as into mythology, I still think the story is very worthwhile, though you may have to exercise a bit more patience as you get grounded in all the characters and their stories. I’d really encourage you to give it a shot though if you’re looking for an entertaining, yet meaningful and complex story.
Circe won me over about 20 pages in, and it only got better from there. It’s honestly been quite a few years since I’ve found a book I loved as much as this one, so my feeling can be summed up as follows: 1) I’m sad it’s over, 2) I can’t believe I waited so long to read this, and 3) I need to go buy a copy of Madeline Miller’s previous novel, The Song of Achilles.
Have you read this and what did you think? See Circe on Amazon.