Rating: 5 out of 5
I spent the best part of my adolescence immersed in Greek mythology, it’s what started me down my path to fiction appreciation and is a large part of the genre I write. Whenever I can find a book that utilizes mythology, of course I want to grab it! I’d been hunting down Circe by Madeline Miller for months to add it to my collection dying to see if she’d keep true to the old myths. Though she definitely borrowed from bards I hadn’t even read up to this point Madeline Miller was able to breathe new life into an old tale, her adaptation of Circe, elevating the character beyond her usual role as supporting cast.
With a cast as overbearing as the Olympians and the Titans themselves it is easy to see how she’s been relegated to clever witch of the magical isle. Even in the beginning of this tale she starts her journey as the plain, unimpressive eldest daughter of Helios and Perse. Circe is said to be named after a hawk or falcon as her voice sounds shrill to the ears of her divine parents. Overlooked and undervalued throughout the realms like a baby bird she wilts and shrivels beneath the brightness of her family; whom never see her as interesting, intelligent or crafty. She has a proclivity towards humans which to her family makes her weak. For a large part of the story she is often seeking love or approval, a desperation that makes her a target for the cruel whims of the Gods.
Circe through Miller’s eyes is less malicious and easily swayed as she appears in the tales of the Odyssey. She is neither damsel nor crone yet she is just as formidable, that peace of her Miller captures effortlessly. Circe manages to hold onto her vulnerability wearing it around her the way the Gods wore their divinity. She rebelled against all things that made her divine and instead fought for her mortality every chance she got. Her refusal to conform to their societal norms where the Olympians were at present higher ranked and Titans bowed to their whims, Circe stood just outside of this bowing to no one and living in exile for it.
Throughout the book we see Circe test her boundaries with regards to her rebellion against her father and the Olympians. First when discovering her gifts and later in response to using them. She welcomes what they would call a punishment as a respite from years of internal isolation and grows into herself on the island of Aiaia. She clung to fear hoping it would protect her from some untold wrath it was only when she released herself from those fears that she was able to finally free herself.
When the novel begins we see Circe as the abused eldest daughter who’s eagerness to please and dote on strangers repeatedly becomes her undoing. She seeks out any form of connection because of the attention it provides despite how she is treated in return. Circe endures these toxic cycles fashioned from her need to feel appreciated while others use her gifts, her insecurities and her hospitality to their ends.
On some level I feel we can all relate to the feelings Circe struggles with especially after years of exile. The novelty of freedom wearing off she was faced with the abrupt and endless loneliness immortality forced her into. Couple that with years of eing mentally trained that you are worthless, useless and better off as a pillar of salt. That she found her inner power at all was a miracle.
Circe’s discovery of her powers is a pivotal moment in the book. Until this point she was a shrinking violet, withering away to nothing. Even the pace of the book was a bit slower during this period of her life. Until Circe meets Glaucos there is no real action. If Circe was a child before she begins a sort of puberty in the following chapters experiencing her first crush, heartbreak and even envy. If it were not for this Circe may have never came into her powers and there would have been no tale.
Circe’s obsession with the mortality of humans is a motivation for her throughout the book. She seems always preoccupied with the withering years of the humans she encounters. It is the disposition that makes her the scapegoat. She is the most disposable or so they think. Circe’s discovery of her powers may have come as a happy accident but her evolution as a witch was a sheer force of will.
At first magic is described as means of bringing forth ones truest self. We see that Circe’s magic has that effect on everyone she seems to come into contact with. It revealed Glaucos to be as vile and cruel as any of the Gods. Showed Scylla for the monster she truly was. It even revealed the goddess herself to be more than the mere whipping-post her family had relegated her to .
Until that point, Circe hadn’t bothered to stand up for herself or what she wanted in any way. She’d been a doormat, being browbeaten and berated endlessly. Her transformation of Scylla was the first time she did something out of spite and for her own benefit. The aftermath of that one moment stayed with her throughout the book and it was considered her greatest regret. She was both physical punished and forced into exile because of this, yet her exile became her salvation.
It is on that island that she found her power.
The themes of women and power are heavily explored in Circe. Throughout the novel there are several examples of women who use everything from looks to the ability to bear children as a means to carve out a place for themselves in the male dominated world they live in.
It is Perse’s womb that carried the witches, each child a new string of amber beads to brag about. Pasiphae uses both her magic and her womb to control Minos, a son of Zeus he is powerless against her succumbing to her will. Pasiphae in turn debases herself in unspeakable ways all in attempts to be remembered. All in pursuit of greater power.
Even the Goddess Athena; who is as worthy an adversary as any male mentioned in this story, even mentioned more fearfully than males in this particular novel, requires the male heroes to do her bidding because it is there offerings she craves.
This novel also explores the varying concepts of power. There seemed to be a sort of Cold War between the remaining Titans and the Olympians which threatened to break into a new war at any minute. The Olympians understood that their victories were mostly won through the alliances forged with other Titans willing to stand by them. The Titans saw that they were greatly outnumbered at this point and for some they were fairly outmatched. Physical power and the power of wills are two very strong themes.
In witchcraft a spell is only as powerful as the will of the one casting it. The power to sway minds and souls. There are many striations of power and the lengths individuals are willing to go through to wield it. Circe seems to gravitate to her magic because it is the one thing that seems to make her less of a victim. She who spent all her life at the mercy of others was able to wield a power that even rivaled the goddess Athena.
If there was one thing that frustrated me with the character of Circe it was her love life. Even this trait is a testament to the development of the character, Miller did great work here in making her well rounded. Circe is a classic case of a young woman with “daddy issues”. Because she never received the love or compassion from her father, she takes any semblance of kindness towards her and runs with it.
We see it with Glaucos but we see it repeated with Hermes. Though she is aware he sees her as a novelty she entertains him anyway, losing herself in him for a time. He shares with her news of the world she is unable to experience for herself however for Hermes she is another story to tell.
She finds herself more interested in mortals. First Daedelus, the talented builder, who was so enchanted by her he crafted the loom she’d kept in her home. Then Odysseus who’s stay on her island showed a different side to their encounter.
What’s most interesting is the way Odysseus himself is portrayed throughout the book, he is most certainly wily but there was a darkness in him that Circe seemed to quell. He brought her from the brink of darkness herself. They’d both been broken for so long at that point, she’d taken to converting any sailor unfortunate enough to grace her shores and he literally lost his way on the seas at the mercy of vengeful Gods. Their relationship was built on the hopes of a safe-haven.
Another really interesting turn in the book occurred when Circe discovered she was pregnant. Whether she intended to become that way or it was purely accidental i’m still not entirely sure. She chose to keep him secret finally having something of her own to love that couldn’t leave so easily. Circe had evolved many times up to this point but she changes again. Motherhood made Circe her most fierce and her most fragile. She was willing to go to the depths of the earth and back for her son and to keep him she opened her heart and her home in ways she’d never expected.
Circe was so fearful of mortality despite coveting the human experience. She could walk with them sharing in their moments but never truly feeling what it was to be human. She possessed many of the qualities without realizing it, perhaps she finally comes to that understanding towards the end of the book. It may even be what inspired that final act on the island.
Circe’s exile seemed to be one of her own design. As her sister said once lapping at the feet of the Gods made her closer to their feet. When Circe finally abandoned the fear that held her back she was able to force her will and free herself from her exile. In some way her release of exile was like shedding the final layers of who she’d been. As she stepped beyond the shores she have truly evolved into her truest self. The best transformation was gradual but saved for the final moments of the book.
I have to give Miller special acknowledgement for her skillful remastering of heroes whom even Disney has had their hands on and still giving them an original flair worth reading further into. Every facet of this book was ingenious and it’s clear how this book made the NY Times bestseller List. It is definitely one of my many favorites, I’ve recommended more times than I can count.
What Is Your Favorite Modern Myth?
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