by Madeline Miller

Cover image

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Copyright: April 2018
Printing: 2020
ISBN: 0-316-55633-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 421

Buy at Powell's Books

Circe is the story of the goddess Circe, best known as a minor character in Homer's Odyssey. Circe was Miller's third book if you count the short novella Galatea. She wrote it after Song of Achilles, a reworking of part of the Iliad, but as with Homer, you do not need to read Song of Achilles first.

You will occasionally see Circe marketed or reviewed as a retelling of the Odyssey, but it isn't in any meaningful sense. Odysseus doesn't make an appearance until nearly halfway through the book, and the material directly inspired by the Odyssey is only about a quarter of the book. There is nearly as much here from the Telegony, a lost ancient Greek epic poem that we know about only from summaries by later writers and which picks up after the end of the Odyssey.

What this is, instead, is Circe's story, starting with her childhood in the halls of Helios, the Titan sun god and her father. She does not have a happy childhood; her voice is considered weak by the gods (Homer describes her as having "human speech"), and her mother and elder siblings are vicious and cruel. Her father is high in the councils of the Titans, who have been overthrown by Zeus and the other Olympians. She is in awe of him and sits at his feet to observe his rule, but he's a petty tyrant who cares very little about her. Her only true companion is her brother Aeëtes.

The key event of the early book comes when Prometheus is temporarily chained in Helios's halls after stealing fire from the gods and before Zeus passes judgment on him. A young Circe brings him something to drink and has a brief conversation with him. That's the spark for one of the main themes of this book: Circe slowly developing a conscience and empathy, neither of which are common among Miller's gods. But it's still a long road from there to her first meeting with Odysseus.

One of the best things about this book is the way that Miller unravels the individual stories of Greek myth and weaves them into a chronological narrative of Circe's life. Greek mythology is mostly individual stories, often contradictory and with only a loose chronology, but Miller pulls together all the ones that touch on Circe's family and turns them into a coherent history. This is not easy to do, and she makes it feel effortless. We get a bit of Jason and Medea (Jason is as dumb as a sack of rocks, and Circe can tell there's already something not right with Medea), the beginnings of the story of Theseus and Ariadne, and Daedalus (one of my favorite characters in the book) with his son Icarus, in addition to the stories more directly associated with Circe (a respinning of Glaucus and Scylla from Ovid's Metamorphoses that makes Circe more central). By the time Odysseus arrives on Circe's island, this world feels rich and full of history, and Circe has had a long and traumatic history that has left her suspicious and hardened.

If you know some Greek mythology already, seeing it deftly woven into this new shape is a delight, but Circe may be even better if this is your first introduction to some of these stories. There are pieces missing, since Circe only knows the parts she's present for or that someone can tell her about later, but what's here is vivid, easy to follow, and recast in a narrative structure that's more familiar to modern readers. Miller captures the larger-than-life feel of myth while giving the characters an interiority and comprehensible emotional heft that often gets summarized out of myth retellings or lost in translation from ancient plays and epics, and she does it without ever calling the reader's attention to the mechanics.

The prose, similarly, is straightforward and clear, getting out of the way of the story but still providing a sense of place and description where it's needed. This book feels honed, edited and streamlined until it maintains an irresistible pace. There was only one place where I felt like the story dragged (the raising of Telegonus), and then mostly because it's full of anger and anxiety and frustration and loss of control, which is precisely what Miller was trying to achieve. The rest of the book pulls the reader relentlessly forward while still delivering moments of beauty or sharp observation.

My house was crowded with some four dozen men, and for the first time in my life, I found myself steeped in mortal flesh. Those frail bodies of theirs took relentless attention, food and drink, sleep and rest, the cleaning of limbs and fluxes. Such patience mortals must have, I thought, to drag themselves through it hour after hour.

I did not enjoy reading about Telegonus's childhood (it was too stressful; I don't like reading about characters fighting in that way), but apart from that, the last half of this book is simply beautiful. By the time Odysseus arrives, we're thoroughly in Circe's head and agree with all of the reasons why he might receive a chilly reception. Odysseus talks the readers around at the same time that he talks Circe around. It's one of the better examples of writing intelligent, observant, and thoughtful characters that I have read recently. I also liked that Odysseus has real flaws, and those flaws do not go away even when the reader warms to him.

I'll avoid saying too much about the very end of the book to avoid spoilers (insofar as one can spoil Greek myth, but the last quarter of the book is where I think Miller adds the most to the story). I'll just say that both Telemachus and Penelope are exceptional characters while being nothing like Circe or Odysseus, and watching the characters tensely circle each other is a wholly engrossing reading experience. It's a much more satisfying ending than the Telegony traditionally gets (although I have mixed feelings about the final page).

I've mostly talked about the Greek mythology part of Circe, since that's what grabbed me the most, but it's quite rightly called a feminist retelling and it lives up to that label with the same subtlety and skill that Miller brings to the prose and characterization. The abusive gender dynamics of Greek myth are woven into the narrative so elegantly you'd think they were always noted in the stories. It is wholly satisfying to see Circe come into her own power in a defiantly different way than that chosen by her mother and her sister. She spends the entire book building an inner strength and sense of herself that allows her to defend her own space and her own identity, and the payoff is pure delight. But even better are the quiet moments between her and Penelope.

"I am embarrassed to ask this of you, but I did not bring a black cloak with me when we left. Do you have one I might wear? I would mourn for him."

I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

"No," I said. "But I have yarn, and a loom. Come."

This is as good as everyone says it is. Highly recommended for the next time you're in the mood for a myth retelling.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-04-10

Last spun 2023-05-13 from thread modified 2023-04-11