The Iliad and the Odyssey are incredible collections of tales of wit, bravery, courage but also murder, deception and greed. Have you read either of these and wondered about the backstory of the characters who flitted on then off scenes between the pages? More specifically, did you read of Odysseus visiting Circe and wondered more about her? If so, you have to read Circe to learn about the nymph. Circe, by Madeline Miller, is a tale of a Greek sorceress in her own words. The novel follows Circe, the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and ocean nymph Perse.
The narrative is written in first person, past tense and begins with how Perse and Helios met for the first time. The reader is carried through Circe’s birth, her first love, her defiances and punishment, giving the feeling they’ve sat with a goddess ready to tell her story.
This novel isn’t merely a retelling of known stories from a different point of view. Though there are plenty of moments from greek mythology, the reader gets to see that other side of the coin, Circe’s story is hers alone. Miller paints the protagonist with a multi-colored brush. The reader sees the protagonist’s life as more than black and white. She’s not either good or bad, just human in a delicious way we like our deities to be.
Though Circe is an offspring of one of the most powerful gods, her father reacts to her birth with a “Come, Let us make a better one,” and this immediately tells the reader what life she will have. Her first days are rather routine, she spends a lot of time alone and no one really pays attention to her. Because she’s not physically attractive and has a shrill voice, she’s overlooked within her family, creating a humanity within a divinity that often isn’t expressed within greek mythology. For the most part, many stories paint the gods as vengeful, gluttonous, beings who entertained themselves with the pain of humans and this them continues in Circe.
As time passes, Circe meets different characters and exists among the more well-known entities . If you haven’t brushed up, don’t worry. Miller placed a cast of characters in the back with short descriptions. I read the book through first before reading through the list, but if you really don’t remember how who interacted with who or why that one name is familiar and you can’t place it, flip a few pages to rest your mind. I’m glad the author chose to do this instead of putting notes at the bottom of the page. It keeps the narrative moving without leaving the reader behind.
For the most part, the gods are described as they are in mythology: Zeus is ferocious and vengeful, Hermes is beautiful and witty and Helios is powerful and narcissistic.The jewel of this book is Circe. In an attempt to keep her first love, Circe uses herbs to make him a god. When he falls for another goddess, Circe uses the same herbs to make the other goddess into a monster. It’s because of this, daughter of Helios is exiled to her own island. Though most readers would know Circe as a sorceress who turns men into pigs, she’s portrayed more as a healer. Historically, female healers were deemed evil and unworthy of care and affection but Miller undoubtedly makes the reader care for this character. Over the 300 hundred plus pages of prose, the reader gets to span infinity. Even in the moments where she’s doing menial things like taking care of her island and her animals, I found myself caring about every detail.
In addition to this handling of time, I thoroughly enjoyed how Circe’s island was more a character in itself than a setting. Some authors might overlook the leaving it as merely a backdrop for a bigger story but Miller doesn’t do this. She goes into extensive detail about the daily care Circe takes in her island. Speaking of how she cultivates the plants and domesticates the animals. This allows the reader to see Circe as more than just a disobedient child of Helios.
Miller creates a separate but interconnected world that keeps the essence of the beloved mythologies but makes it her own. This allows for familiarity without feeling bored with the story line. Each page leads itself to another and each time I sat down to read it I kept flipping through, eager to get to the next page. There are moments of beautiful prose and dialogue but there aren’t overwritten like some mythological leaning narratives can do. That moment you’re reading a sentence and it’s incredibly long with complex word structure just for the sake of seeming ancient? Miller has none of that. Even in the softer, poetic moments it all feels natural and unassuming.
Circe continues to showcase Miller’s ability to creatively intertwine a new narrative with one that has existed for centuries. It creates a new point of view that is often overlooked or just overshadowed and puts it front and center with style and grace. The author takes the reader on a journey through existence meeting almost all the best-known characters, while connecting with a lesser known character making this narrative a balanced experience.