Circe by Madeline Miller is the story of Circe (the daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse) and her journey through the centuries as she learns about witchcraft, mortals, and the treachery of being alive.
Circe has received so much praise that I wasn’t sure it would hold up to its reputation when it came to reading it, and actually it wasn’t what I expected. It’s a quiet book full of deceptively low-key moments, and they build so subtly that it wasn’t until the end that I realised how masterfully Miller created her world. As well as this, I was expecting massive feminist fireworks, but it’s much more restrained than that. Circe’s journey of empowerment is compelling and engaging in a way that feels universal, although it certainly lends itself to a feminist reading. The themes of autonomy, rebellion, and loneliness blend seamlessly with the story to form a novel that is complete and sympathetic.
To anyone even slightly familiar with Greek mythology, many of the characters will be familiar—Prometheus, Zeus, Athena, Scylla, and Odysseus to name a few. Circe is the protagonist, and through her eyes we see the events of Greek mythology play out, but at a distance. Mortals pass in and out of her life; their existence only lasts a small moment of time and no matter how important they become to her they are still fleeting and impermanent. A good example of this is Daedalus, the architect of the labyrinth. He and Circe become lovers. Daedalus is mentioned for a few chapters, and then Circe learns that he has died. She does grieve him, but her primary reaction is an expected, patient sorrow. It’s the price a god pays for entwining their lives with a mortal. Mortals intrigue Circe, and it is only with them that she forms her few precious and emotional bonds.
But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.
It is this contrast that pushes Circe into finding her own life, and deciding her own thoughts and values, free from the influence of her divine family and her human lovers. She finds freedom in her witchcraft, and turns her banishment into her sanctuary.
Circe is a thought-provoking story about life, and what choices we may have to make to live through it. Thematically it reminded me of Deerskin by Robin McKinley—another novel of a neglected and tormented woman finding her voice through embracing her innate power. Miller uses the highest of figures to talk about the most human of ideas, and the ending is a quiet resolution that is satisfying, and yet leaves much room for thought.
© 2019 Alice Olivia Scarlett
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.