Circe: A winningly feminist retelling/expansion

Circe by Madeline Miller fantasy book reviewsCirce by Madeline Miller fantasy book reviewsCirce by Madeline Miller

“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Thus begins Circe’s self-told tale, and the yet-to-be-invented descriptor she references here is “witch,” though it could just as easily, and perhaps more significantly for this story, be “independent woman,” since both concepts, it turns out, are equally confounding to Titan, Olympian, and mortal alike, much to the reader’s satisfaction.

Beyond that bedeviling of the uber-powerful, there’s a lot that satisfies (and more) here: Madeline Miller’s lovely prose, how she stays faithful to the myths but fills the spaces between them with a rich originality, the manner in which the tale creates tension despite the fact we know how many of its parts end, the many times we dip into and out of storytelling as we hear of Theseus and the Minotaur or Achilles and Hector, and the way the familiar is constantly being told slant, challenging millennia of storytelling where “humbling woman seems a chief pastime of poets.”

One such poet — Homer — grants Circe a mere handful of lines, making her a literal detour on a great hero’s adventures. But hers is the voice in Circe (2018), and that great hero, important as he is in this story, doesn’t even appear until a little past the halfway point; this time he is merely a waypoint on Circe’s journey toward her own destiny.

It’s a long journey, given that she is an immortal, and it begins in the halls of her father, the sun god Helios, where she witnesses the torture of Prometheus (before the cliff and eagle), who becomes a sort of standard by which she measures her choices. The rest of her days, if she’s lucky, she’s merely ignored; otherwise she suffers the daily taunts of her sister Pasiphae, the other nymphs, and both her parents. Her only refuge is her brother Aeetes, but after Pasiphae is married off to Minos and heads off to Crete (where she’ll birth the Minotaur), Aeetes abruptly departs to found his kingdom of Colchis (where he will hoard the Golden Fleece and father Medea).

Alone, Circe meets a mortal fisherman, Glaucos, and the two eventually become lovers, which is how Circe comes into her power as a witch (all her mother’s children are witches). Seeking to make him immoral so they can be together, she successfully transforms him into a sea god, but this only makes him see “dull” Circe as beneath him. When he turns his eye to Scylla, a beautiful but cruel nymph, Circe uses her magic again, this time turning Scylla into the six-headed sea monster most of us know her as. For this she is banished to the lonely, uninhabited island of Aiaia, where she begins the second part of her life.

Her isolation is broken over the centuries by visits from Hermes, a ship from her sister (captained by Daedalus) to bring her to Crete to assist in the birthing of the minotaur, meetings with Medea and Jason and her brother, and, most personally tragically, a landing of lost seafarers that ends in rape, something well foreshadowed throughout Circe in the many ways females are casually and cruelly treated, as when Circe complains to Hermes about wayward nymphs being sent by their fathers to her island, and he suggests she “take them to your bed”:

“That is absurd,” I said. “They would run screaming.”

“Nymphs always do,” he said. “But I’ll tell you a secret: they are terrible at getting away.”

After the rape, Circe turns coldly lethal. Instead of cloaking her island from sailors, something she readily admits she could have done easily, she allows them to land, replaying the same scene again and again:

They all had the same desperate story … There was always a leader … The bench would scrape and he would stand. The men watched … They wanted the freeze, the flinch, the begging…

Now though, the scene has a different ending:

It was my favorite moment, seeing them frown and try to understand why I wasn’t afraid … Then I plucked them. Their backs bent … they thrashed … Their screams broke into squeals.

Eventually, of course, Odysseus does show up, and Circe’s life takes another turn as the two becomes lovers, but in a complicated, adult fashion — not a swooning “love-of-the-dashing-hero” but one where she is well aware of his flaws and meets him as peer or more, god to mortal. Though, of course, she bitingly reports, the later stories will have none of that:

I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me to be a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

As he must, Odysseus is eventually on his way to his own story, but Circe’s continues, though I’ll leave the rest of it, perfectly set up and perfectly closed out, for the reader to enjoy. Circe is beautifully written, impeccably structured, thematically tight, but what carries the novel is Circe’s voice: one that is at turns elegiac, reflective, bitter, sharply funny, regretful, joyful, but always real. “The goddess with the voice of a human,” indeed.

~Bill Capossere


Circe by Madeline Miller fantasy book reviewsIn myth, Circe always tends to star in someone else’s show. Most will recognise her name from The Odyssey, in which she features as Odysseus’s paramour for a couple of months before he jets off on his adventures again. Hence why Madeline Miller’s treatment of her story is being hailed as a feminist retelling. From her humble beginnings in her father’s palace to her rise as a powerful witch, this is a portrait of Circe never seen before.

Like all good myths, Circe is something of an origins story. The tale begins with Circe as a child, growing up in her father’s — Helios, the sun god — palace. Both her parents think Circe is a dullard. Her cruel siblings tease her remorselessly, yet she keeps coming back to try to win the approval of her father. After witnessing the punishment of Prometheus (he’s banished to have his liver eternally pecked away by birds), Circe develops a deep interest and sympathy for mortals. Not long after, she falls in love with a fisherman, Glaucos, and turns him into a god.

It’s the first taste Circe has of her own witchcraft, and it’s not until she is banished to an island for using it that she really begins to get a sense of her power. Over the coming years she refines her skill, and it’s not until she is summoned to her sister’s home (in a brief hiatus from her banishment) that she realises that her power surpasses even her sibling’s.

Of course, those who have read The Odyssey will know that Circe’s story is gearing towards Odysseus’s arrival on her island. He does indeed make his appearance and it is not long before Circe has fallen for him. Miller’s dealings with Odysseus are actually amongst the most interesting in her adaptation of the myth. He’s presented as a deeply nuanced and flawed character, an angle The Odyssey certainly doesn’t present.

Circe does at times feel like a who’s who of Greek myth. There are cameos from Athena, Hermes, Jason and Medea, not to mention the small retellings of lesser myths that pepper the prose. This does, at times, feel unnecessary, and you wonder whether Miller shouldn’t have saved a few for her next book.

The prose will also be divisive. Many have hailed Miller’s writing as beautifully lyrical, but sometimes it’s just a bit too much. The endless similes can just be a bit dodgy: 

Athena snapped each word like a dove’s neck.

And, my personal favourite:

The sun seemed to drop into the sea like a falling plate.

There is no doubt that some passages are lyrical and a pleasure to read, but perhaps a few of the more purple descriptions could have been culled.

For two thirds of Circe, the plot was geared towards Odysseus’s arrival on the island, but after his departure, the story seemed to lose a bit of steam. The pacing at around the two-thirds mark lost momentum, although a satisfying climax compensated for the lull.

For lovers of myth, Circe will be a wonderful read (though one wonders what actual classicists will have to say about the adaptation). Though not quite a feminist icon, Miller’s treatment of Circe provides a portrait of a woman who finds her voice and happiness eventually (albeit with a man). A great summer read.

~Ray McKenzie

Published April 10, 2018. In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves. Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus. But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love. With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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3 comments

  1. GIMME GIMME GIMME GIMME

    *ahem*

    Yeah, this sounds good. :)

    • Can’t wait to hear what you think! (I’m begging my wife to hurry up and finish her current book so she can move on to this–can’t happen fast enough as far as I’m concerned)

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