Madeline Miller’s Circe hones in on a small portion of Greek mythology, following the infamous Circe from childhood, where she is abused and neglected by her fellow gods, to adulthood, where she meets famous figures such as Odysseus, Daedalus, Icarus, Hermes, Athena, and even the Minatour. On the surface, it is a story of survival, as Circe seeks to find her place in a world filled with both gods and mortals.
Yet this is also a story about love, sacrifice, and what it means to exist in this world that is so unlike our own. Circe is rejected by her family for a reason that many of us can understand: she is different, and, as result of this, along with a little witchcraft, she is exiled to spend all of eternity stranded on a desert island. Yet Circe’s life is far from over, and she is frequently visited, her companions sometimes friendly, and sometimes not so friendly. The story takes us beyond the myth to really understand Circe and what drives her. She may be a goddess, but she has thoughts and feelings just like we do. Madeline Miller takes us inside these feelings in an epic story of pure adventure.
The first thing to note when considering Circe is the sheer power of Miller’s writing. She merges classical tropes such as epithets with a more modern style of writing, producing a work that interests contemporary audiences, whilst revealing a lot about Classical Greece. This is made apparent as she describes the settings that surround Circe; through her descriptions, it becomes easy to love the island, Aiaia, and the comfort that it offers Circe. As you read, you will be able to picture Circe’s lions and wolves lying down in her kitchen and following her along the beach. You will picture the mysterious forests, and feel the claustrophobia presented by the ocean.
The characterisation in Circe is also noteworthy; unlike Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, this is not strictly a feminist work. Circe is by no means perfect; she is a very three-dimensional character, and it is possible to both love and hate her – even at the same time. The other characters in Circe are less thoroughly developed, but this doesn’t remove anything from the story; Circe is the heart of this book, and it is her personality that really shines through its pages.
Perhaps the only drawback to this book is that, due to Circe’s exile, she is set apart from the rest of the world. To an extent, this is appealing, as we can see her development and better appreciate the events happening around her. At the same time, though, there were occasions, such as during the mention of Theseus’ adventure with the Minotaur, or Midea’s anguish at being rejected by her husband, Jason, that this book can seem a little too far from the action. Circe’s isolation is both powerful, and debilitating to Miller’s narrative; her separation from the world is the focus of this book, and yet through this focus, it is possible to feel as though there is not enough action in the narrative.
Circe is an intricate novel filled with rich descriptions and intense characterisation. It is extremely compelling and provides some fascinating insights into Greek mythology. Slight background knowledge of Homer’s The Odyssey may add a little to the story, but it is by no means necessary. This book speaks for itself, and when it does, it speaks wonders.