Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index
 
 
 

CIRCE

A novel by Madeline Miller
(2018, Little, Brown and Company)
 
 

A daughter of gods, outcast by her rebellious nature, turns to witchcraft and interacts with the mortals who come to her island, defying the Olympians and finding love.

 
 
 
   

-- First reading (trade paperback)
October 6th to 14th, 2022

 
   

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. The author does a great job of intertwining Circe into the gaps where the Greek mythology doesn’t extend. I love the idea of taking a character who appears in a single chapter of The Odyssey and extending her backstory backward and forward. Why was she turning men into pigs, anyway? Why did she help them get through Scylla and the Sirens? I liked her interactions with the gods early in the book, when she was just a na´ve and timid girl. She managed to find the ire of Zeus, the anger of Athena, and the love of Hermes. Her exile was her pleasure, to get away from them all, until forever started taking its toll. When visitors started coming to her island, she reacted naively, then with anger, until finally Odysseus found a way to turn her around again. Once she gained that confidence, which might only come with being a parent, taking great pains to ensure her child is safe, she manages to pull off her greatest achievements, and finally find focus not only in her life, but what she wants her life to be. Definitely an interesting take on Greek mythology.

Spoiler review:

When I think of Ulysses or the Greek gods or Titans, I used to have something vague in mind, and even when they refered to it in Percy Jackson, or the movies about Rise of the Titans or even Wonder Woman, I was never all that interested in them. I knew the basics, but little more. That has changed with this book. The author takes her time describing a minor character from the pantheon of Greek gods, and the way she observes and interacts with the gods and heroes. Now when I think of Prometheus, I will think of Circe, the same with Scylla, Athena, Odysseus, Daedalus, the minotaur, and so on and so on.

The author does a great job giving this character he own personality and motivations. Always starved for attention, being the weakest daughter of Helios, always spurned as ugly and with a terrible voice, to never amount to anything, she is basically ignored. However, like the kitchen staff in a castle, she probably learns more about the boasts and conquests of the gods than anybody.

That’s not to say she becomes wise, because she doesn’t. While the book’s big weakness is that it takes place over thousands of years, it’s also a strength. The story drags a little bit in the intervening years, when nothing major is happening, but really picks up when she gets exiled for transforming a mortal man into an immortal, and the beautiful Scylla into a monster (a representation of her true self). She thinks she loves, but is so na´ve that she can’t understand what the world is really like. So her love becomes an important minor god, and loses interest in her, and she takes her revenge on his new lover. This of course dooms hundreds of men to death, including many of the sailors of Odysseus.

On her island, her story shines, as she relishes being alone, mixing herbs, doing witch stuff, taming the animals, and getting romantic and intimate visits with Hermes. It’s probably my favorite part, as she gets tidbits of information on the world beyond, and learns a lot about herself and her expectations of the world. She even gets a small reprieve from the island as she is supposed to help her sister give birth, cutting her open in a C-section, and getting fingers bitten off by the monster baby. Her sister’s smirk when she blames Daedalus for getting her pregnant, when the whole plot was her own, to give her some advantage, speaks volumes. She has the power to kill the minotaur, but consults her visions, and concludes that it’s the fate of somebody else to do it, so the creature gets a labyrinth.

I love the way that there is no precedent for putting Circe into any of these situations, but neither is there anything explicitly stating she wasn’t involved, which gives the author the perfect entry point. I also love the way she describes the power of the gods. I’ve never heard of their everyday powers. Sure, they can make things appear and disappear at will, but I’ve never heard of them regrowing fingers (though I suppose that’s implied by Prometheus’ liver growing back every day). Circe makes the point to say how the gods have no sense of ownership because they can carve a statue with no effort, mine metals for creating a necklace with a snap of the fingers, and so on. They have a sense of entitlement instead.

Then the world changes for her, as she is raped by shipwrecked sailors, letting them get too close before she tries to use her magic. After the leader rapes her, she kills them all. Then, for every ship that lands on her shores, she turns them into pigs, regardless of their intentions. Then comes Odysseus’ ship. Odysseus and her come to an agreement, and in this story she has an equal part in the lover’s agreement.

The longest part of the book deals with Odysseus, as he spends months with her, helping her, growing to love her. As they are both rebels at heart, they get along well and understand each other. All she asks for in payment is his stories. Then she realizes that she’s fallen in love, and he with her. But in the end, he needs to leave again. She allows herself to become pregnant, giving birth to the son who will eventually kill him.

The pregnancy is very difficult, giving her pain every day, and in the end, she has to give herself a C-section to get it out. The child is very difficult until he’s a teen, when he finally calms down, but then he gets restless, like his father. It turns out that Athena wants to kill the boy, because she knows by secret prophecy that he will kill his father, Athena’s favorite. I liked the way Circe faces off against her and wins by setting a spell of protection on the island.

When her son decides he must leave the island, she searches the poisonous god of formation and gains his tail. I was confused and a bit disappointed in this part, because while the fish-god said she would endure eternal pain if she wanted the tail, it was only a lie, a test, and she gained it without any payment. If word ever got out, if she ever told anybody –or even if Hermes or Athena saw it and realized she didn’t suffer any ill effects, then the illusion would be gone, and everyone would try to get the poison tail.

After Odysseus is killed, his wife and first child come to the island. Circe is jealous at first, but grows to love both of them. Penelope learns to become a witch, while Telemachus grows close enough to eventually become her lover. Eventually Athena returns, and offers Telemachus a kingdom in Italy, but he refuses, so it goes to Circe’s son instead. I also found this to be weak, as the boy, while he could be a leader, is as na´ve as she was, despite her warnings. I suppose with Athena guiding him, he would be pretty safe, but even she couldn’t save her favorite Odysseus.

Circe’s final acts are to kill Scylla (putting the nymph out of her misery and saving many more lives afterward), and using her witchcraft of transformation to turn herself into a mortal. So she and Telemachus will spend the rest of their mortal days traveling Egypt and the rest of the known world.

I liked the way the author squished all sorts of Greek mythology, from gods to heroes and more, into Circe’s story. She was observer to all, and when she couldn’t, she got news from elsewhere, so was able to report it. I liked the little reminders of the mythology, though could have done without some of the much longer recounts, like of Odysseus and the cyclops, which slowed down the plot more than I would have liked.

Very enjoyable, especially for a subject that I don’t have a particular fascination for. The author made it very intriguing and entertaining, and I was interested in what would happen next. Definitely a fun read.

 
   

Back to Top

All reviews and page designs at this site Copyright © 1999 -  by Warren Dunn, all rights reserved.