When I was in middle school, it was one book craze after another. Harry Potter. Warriors. And, of course, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Those were the books that drove waiting lists. My friends and I discussed what Greek gods could be our parents with the same fervor as we did our Hogwarts houses. In eighth grade, my best friend and I jumped at the chance to take Latin at the high school even though we’d have to get up an hour earlier for it. Percy Jackson ignited a passion for mythology in not only me, but an entire generation.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Madeline Miller’s books have done well. Swamped with schoolwork, the craze for The Song of Achilles passed me by, but I still heard about it and saw it on stands in the library. Now, Circe is the book that everyone is talking about, and seeing Rick Riordan’s stamp of approval, I couldn’t help but check it out.
Circe certainly speaks to the demographic that grew up on Percy Jackson, but when it comes down to it, this is a very different sort of book. More tragedy than comedy, it echoes with the pain and wisdom of millennia. Circe’s voice is distinct, that of a soft-hearted woman who has loved and lost countless times, collecting scars like so many flowers. She narrates her life story in the first person from start to finish, only once getting ahead of herself when she prematurely mentions Odysseus.
As I read the book, I would occasionally pause to wonder whether an incident belonged to established mythology or was an invention of the author. More often than not, when I looked it up, it turned out to be the former. I slowly realized that both my freshman English class, which cast Circe as a capricious sorceress, and my Latin education, which largely ignored mythology that wasn’t to do with Aeneas, had completely failed me on the subject of Circe. Beyond that, while I am able to draw lines of relation where they are most essential, my teachers rarely had the time to explain the big picture of Greek mythology, like how the house of Atreus so often mentioned in Homer has its curse originate in Tantalus, or how Circe is related to figures such as Helios, Pasiphaë, and Medea. When I read these tales, I used to read them in isolation.
Of course, the Circe of the Odyssey is one of many obstacles for Odysseus to outwit, an exotic sorceress who he seduces and strips of her powers against him. In that sense, her story as told by Homer is that of a male power fantasy. With the slightest critical eye, though, it’s easy for a woman to find a recognizable face in Circe. She turns men into pigs? We’ve all met a man more porcine than human at some point. She’s a witch? In the modern day, it’s accepted that “witches” are often just women who have gained more power than is socially acceptable. With those associations at her fingertips, Miller leans into a sympathetic, feminist portrait of the character.
This is no lazy attempt to capitalize on trends, however. Miller is a scholar of classics, and her expertise shines through in the text. She draws on tales both familiar and unfamiliar to create a cohesive life story rather than a collection of pieces. Her take on Glaucos and Scylla I thought was particularly inspired.
In a thread she introduces through Glaucos and Scylla, then returns to throughout the text, Miller explores the concept of becoming one’s true self. Circe, an oddball among gods and mortals alike, struggles to find a companion in a cruel, isolating world. She searches for fulfillment in her brother Aeëtes, in her various lovers, and in her son Telegonus. No matter where she looks, the gods are too uncaring and the mortals too transient. Immortality proves to be a curse rather than a blessing. In this version of the story, at least, she does find what she’s looking for in the end.
I shouldn’t neglect to say that the prose is gorgeous. Circe’s narration is shot through with description that channels the sort of nostalgia we humans tend to have for lost ages we have never seen with our own eyes.
I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Greek mythology and to lovers of strong female characters. In fact, Miller seems to argue through the text that Circe is the prototypical strong female character. Even if you don’t have a hunger for either of those things, Circe will satisfy your appetite for a well-told story.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars.
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