The novel Circe by Madeline Miller takes the story of the Titan Witch Circe from Greek Mythology and transforms it into a tale which gives us a much deeper insight into the character and, a backstory that even writers like Ovid didn’t touch on. As a Classist, I enjoyed this book a lot. It took me back to the days when I was studying the subject at university and made me feel all of that initial love and fascination with the myths, as I did when I first thought about studying Classics eight years ago (I feel so old ☹).
My initial thought was why Circe and not Calypso? If you know Greek myth, you know that the story of Circe (with regards to Odysseus) is almost identical to that of Calypso’s. But this is probably because of how misleading the blurb is. It leads you to think that Odysseus is at the centre of this story. If he was, then naturally Calypso would have been a better choice because she has more of a voice in The Odyssey and delays his journey for a whole seven years, as opposed to Circe’s one year. But in the novel Circe, Odysseus is really is a blip in the radar of a vast and fascinating life. He’s a very important blip, but a blip nonetheless. So, there is really is no competition with Calypso, once you remove Odysseus. Where Calypso is an ordinary Nymph, Circe is a complex character, which is probably why Miller chose her. There’s more going on with her than sex and turning people into pigs, and there are so many different versions of her story, that it allows Miller to make her Circe a multifaceted character. It was a stroke of genius on Miller’s part. But the writer of the blurb failed in encapsulating what the book is actually about – so don’t rely that on that. For all the praise of this being a ‘feminist novel,’ the editors put more emphasis on Odysseus than was necessary. The novel is not about him, he is there, absolutely, but he doesn’t show up until ¾ of the way into the book, and he is more of a catalyst for the Circe’s happy ending, rather than the embodiment of it.
When I studied the subject at A-levels, we started at Book 5 when Circe is seeing Odysseus off. In the Odyssey, she only has 2 , chapter 10 and 12 chapters, so the lasting image we have of her in popular culture is of her giving Odysseus advice and direction but having no direct impact on the story, which is why many people probably don’t think of her as a character of much significance. And because of this, like many characters in Greek myth, she is a skeleton. A lot of Greek mythical characters (aside from the ones we see in Tragedy) are empty. They cry, they scream, they smile, but for 21st-century audiences, there can a disconnect between their actions and what that the bard claims that they are feeling. This is probably because we associate these images and stories, with the plain-faced, empty-eyed statues in Museums. But Miller manages to come into that empty space and add flesh to these characters. She takes this relatively minor character in a popular hero saga and gives her emotion, feeling and a story of her own.
And Circe is the perfect character to give all of that feeling to because of who she is. She is the daughter of the sun and the sea nymph, Perse. She is one of four witches, and as a result, is one of the most well-connected deities in the Greek canon. She is the sister of Pasiphae, mother of The Minotaur, sister of Aeetes, and Perses and aunt to Medea and Ariadne. Through these major characters, Circe is connected to a thousand Greek stories tying in a lot of the Greek canon into one seamless stream of narrative through this one character, from Greece all the way to Rome. And all of these encounters add a little bit more to the character of Circe that we eventually meet with Homer.
The development of her personality from timid to tough is something which classical literature doesn’t give us. Art depicts her as a femme fatal, and the original myths depict her as a person of adverse action, but of little personality. Miller, uses all the familial and historical mythological connections to give her experiences, a past, a present and a future, aside from that single moment on Aeaea (as its spelt in The Odyssey) with Odysseus and forges a character resilient to the changing attitudes of humans and gods; likeable and pitiful but also extremely powerful.
The emotions that the rest of the gods look down on are what gives her the courage to stand up to gods like Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Helios. These are not just some any god – these are gods that nobody messed around with, but she can, because her long life and a deep sense of feeling give her things worth fighting for, things that most immortals will never have. It’s heart-rendering and emotional to see her shift between the experiences of loss, love, giving life, motherhood and see how they mould her as she stands stationary, an immortal in an ever-moving life of mortality.
I like what Miller does with the concept of time in this novel as well. We’re following Circe but Circe is immortal, so in some ways she’s static, so when she tells us how the lives of people she’s met end later, you get a glimpse of things moving around her while she stays in a single time zone with us, the reader. Meeting all of these characters in a stream shows the breadth of her immortal life, but also the extent of the god’s reach and connection to all Greek society and myth.
Circe aside, depictions of the gods is excellent. They are the carelessness despite being related, and it’s is a theme carried on in Greek literature. Relations means nothing to Greek gods. But what Miller also does is tie together all the images that a lot of us have of the gods from seeing things like Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ and the Elgin marbles – that languid nature, uncaring, powerful and connected but essentially emotionally vacant, which is what sets Circe apart.
I also like the way she differentiates between the Titans and the Olympians. The Titans are a darker, earthier race of Gods, as opposed to the lighter, whimsical, Olympians, who are more singular and polished in their abilities.
But best of all I like the depictions of Odysseus. In school, my class and I could never understand the fascination with him. He was callous and used people, and yet the bards praised him. Miller doesn’t. She shows him as modern audiences see him, he really is “cunning Odysseus” as his original his epithet by Homer goes, and there’s very little that’s nice about him.
Circe controls her own destiny, in a way that not even The Fates can, which is, I suppose the ‘Will’ that makes her a Witch, and is the definition of real power, which is why the gods fear her. She’s free with her choices, her love and her future. She gets her loving family by show of her own determination, and her emotions lead her away from immortality, loveless-ness, and lifelessness. The need to be accepted and be kind means that she can be loved for herself.
All the stories, societies and traditions, like Xenia, the rules of having guests in the home, that I spent 6 years studying, came up in this novel, and it reminded me why I loved the subject.
In keeping with the tradition of myths and legends, like a Marvel story, the tales are not fixed. They can be changed and reinterpreted for new audiences and readers, and that’s exactly what Miller does. She merges versions of the story to make new endings. Circe’s ending is changed here from the more traditional one, possibly because the original would have been too outlandish (and incestuous) for modern readers. But in merging of two characters, Miller’s ending ties in more neatly with 21st-century views and makes it a gorgeous and fulfilling end to a life otherwise thwarted with uncertainty and pain; it can finally gain a sense of change and finality.
This is a good summer/spring read. It takes you to fantasy Greece and into an up-close and personal world of the gods that most of us haven’t seen before and I honestly hope that Miller continues to produce many more re-writings and re-imaginings of Greek myths.