Author: Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller, of The Song of Achilles fame, decided to return to tried and true formula of retelling, embellishing and altering Greek myths to suit modern audiences. Armed with sharply evocative, melancholy writing style and selective empathy, Miller chose to tackle the story of Circe, daughter of Helios, one of the very few witches of Greek mythology, and one famous mostly for her encounter with wily Odysseus.
One thing I cannot deny this book is its ambition. It takes a lot of ambition, and plenty of guts, to take a third-rate character and from their point of view present – or rather rewrite – a huge portion of Greek mythology, its gods and its heroes. It’s a shrewd move, for who can say what Circe was really like? We know her only from the words of others – as a sorceress, a mistress of manipulation and transformation, and a cynical enemy of men, who in time is tamed by an even greater schemer, the cunning legendary trickster Odysseus. She is the maker of Scylla, the six-headed man-eating monster. She is the sister of Pasifae, who gave birth to the terrible Minotaur. As Helios’s daughter, she is counted among the Titans; as Perse’s daughter, she is often demoted to nymphs. Circe is a rare creature; only few in Greek mythology are known for magic as not an innate limited power but something akin to alchemy: dabbling in potions and herbs, speaking incantations, waving wands. Mythological Circe is proud and powerful; an absolute ruler on her island, served by a host of dryads and naiads.
But the majority of what we know about her comes from Odysseus’s words. When Odysseus lands on Circe’s island Aiaia, full of weirdly tame beasts, his men are turned into pigs. Odysseus avoids that fate only because Hermes helps him, giving him an antidote to magic – the famed herb moly. He threatens Circe with his sword and she falls to her knees, begging him to come to her bed, “to learn to trust in one another.” Can we believe that the powerful sorceress falls in love with Odysseus right after he brandishes his sword (no pun intended)? Hardly. The bed is just another ruse, a well-designed one, after years of war and travels, to render Odysseus helpless. That’s why he demands a powerful, binding oath from Circe not to harm him or his. And let’s not forget that Odysseus is not the most reliable narrator in the world, and that he has a vested interest in depicting himself in a better light – but Homer never tries to conceal it (contrary to Miller’s Circe, I might add). In the original myths Circe is a typical foil for the hero, an obstacle on his difficult road home – an obstacle to be somehow conquered, removed, or turned into an asset. “The true sister of murderous-minded Aeetes” eventually becomes a valued and cherished ally, as evidenced in the birth of Telegonus, Circe and Odysseus’s son. She advises Odysseus, equips him in knowledge vital to his survival for the next stages of his journey, becomes his partner to whom he returns, and returns again before finally setting sail for Ithaca (depending on a version, Odysseus had from one to three sons with Circe).
But what about the Circe from Miller’s novel? She is a victim turned a tormentor, who after centuries, through meaningful relationships, overcomes the endless cycle of violence and becomes her own person. Victimhood of Circe is manifold; you won’t find in Miller’s narrative many traces of the proud, cunning, ruthless sorceress from Greek myths. Instead, you’ll find an unloved, neglected daughter and sister. A spurned lover, achieving her first acts of transformation more through accidental convergence of factors than an effort of will and knowledge. A prey of gods and men, growing pale and stunted in the shadow of bigger, more powerful or simply more grasping family members. A scapegoat, sacrificed for the lasting peace between Titans and Olympians, whose everlasting exile on the island of Aiaia paradoxically becomes her chance to finally grow into herself. She finds empowerment in her gifts, makes her own place among the gods and mortals, and in time becomes a power in her own right, a power to be reckoned with.
So, Miller’s Circe is a story of feminist empowerment. It’s an interesting concept, and more than that – one that offers opportunity to discuss certain aspects of our culture which for centuries have been treated as so obvious and unquestionable that they became nearly unnoticeable. There is value in this approach, and I appreciate it all the more for my own love and respect for mythology. And I really enjoyed the easy, flowing melody of narrative, the whimsy and sadness of the early chapters of Miller’s Circe enough to turn a blind eye toward the myriad twists and changes introduced to the original myths. Miller gives her protagonist more agency, cleverly bending existing myths to insinuate Circe’s actions into established narratives, skewing perspectives and thus fleshing out the heroine of her novel. I was absolutely fine with Circe helping Prometheus (ah, maybe not “absolutely” – this one seemed far-fetched) or with Circe responsible for Glaucus’s transformation. I enjoyed reading about her relationships with Pasifae, Hermes and Daedalus; and while I had my reservations about Miller’s explanation of Circe’s villainous origins – I admit I grew weary of that “victim to perpetrator” trope, it has been vastly overused and irrevocably trivialized by Disney – I could still see where the motivation for this choice came from. But with Odysseus it all came crashing down. Painfully, I might add.
I’ll be frank and quick now, as this review has grown too long already. I don’t comprehend the concept that one’s greatness is inevitably bound with another’s belittlement. I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why Miller, so intent on lionizing Circe, chose to depict Odysseus as a nasty little man, full of himself and quick to anger, and a cold-blooded, psychopathic killer to boot. Did she do it so that she could explain Circe’s later decision to marry Odysseus’s son, Telemachus? Was it to show that she was exchanging him for a better model, is that it? Because, as you can expect – Telemachus in Circe is a living perfection. Considerate, kind, brave, wouldn’t harm a fly. Never heard of him? Hmm. Wonder why.
Odysseus was far from perfection. He was indeed a ruthless killer – all Greek heroes were. Because for all Miller’s laudable effort and knowledge she seems to forget that Greek concept of heroism was an ambivalent one; a hero was a degree above norm in everything they did, for better or worse. They were not Captain America, a walking embodiment of ideals. Greek heroes were fallible, proud, they made mistakes – and their mistakes were catastrophes. But what made them heroes was their unconquerable will to improve; to become better versions of themselves. To overcome the fate, and the will of gods; to give humanity hope. They not always succeeded; heck, they failed more often than not. But they tried, or died trying. Miller attempts to deprive Odysseus of this heroism. An old, bitter war veteran with an ugly soul – that’s what Odysseus is in Circe. There’s just one little problem with this logic – if Odysseus was such a rotten person, why would anyone get so hung up on him as to give him three sons and marry the one that wasn’t hers?
Rant over, and the only thing left to do here is a summary. I applaud Miller’s writing skill. Circe flows with fluid ease, filled with emotion and precision of phrase. It’s nostalgic and melancholy, poetic and evocative. It asks for empathy and gives empathy – just not to everyone. And this is my main complaint regarding this novel: in trying to vaunt Circe, Miller attempts to discredit Odysseus. I admit I have an academic interest in Greek mythology – and the depiction of war veterans in Greek epic is a part of my research. To see them belittled and dismissed as bragging, swaggering, unfeeling “males” is deeply disconcerting. Maybe if I didn’t study this topic, I’d be more lenient in my opinions. As it is, for all the beauty of language, subtle skills of retelling, and the crafty boldness of the message of empowerment, Circe left me with a feeling of disappointment.