Circe was a Greek goddess. A witch, according to the mythology, who’s banished to a deserted island for eternity after Zeus grows wary of her powers. But Madeline Miller’s Circe is far more than that. She is the wallflower of the house of Helios, mocked and ignored at an endless party where all the other gods are indulgent, beautiful, and powerful. She is hesitant, searching for her true self, but she is defiant too. She may not know exactly what she wants, but she knows what she doesn’t want, and for the first few centuries that’s more than enough.
While traditional tellings of these myths would mention Circe in passing as a wild woman, bitter and unpredictable, Miller beckons her to centre stage, admiring her self-determination. So much of history (fact, and fiction) has been written by men. Miller seems to have fingered her way through Homer’s Odyssey and asked the question: what about her?
In fact, Miller did more than finger through a few old male-focused stories, she earned a Masters in classics before turning her eye to these retellings. Circe is her second novel, following the Orange Prize-winning The Song of Achilles. And the depth and breadth of that knowledge seasons every page of Circe’s story. Miller comfortably references many familiar tales (Icarus, the Minotaur, and Odysseus, to name a few) and ferries an assortment of exotic gods through the narrative like an artist choosing paints. The seas are just the right shade of blue, the villains just the right shade of sinister.
Circe mostly reads like a 21st-century novel, not a gilded epic. The nature of the gods, with their immortality and appetite for sin, makes the stakes feel lower and more fun, while the focus on Circe’s internal conflict keeps the story immediate. Epic tales of monsters and wars have a way of distancing the reader, but Miller keeps us close to the main characters’ complicated feelings:
“I waited for Hermes so I might ask him what became of Medea and Jason, but he always seemed to know when I wanted him, and stayed away. I tried to weave, but my mind felt needle-pricked. Now that Medea had named my loneliness, it hung from everything, clinging like spiderwebs, unavoidable. I rad along the beach, gasped up and down the forest paths, trying to shake it from me. I sifted and resifted my memories of Aeëtes, all those hours we had leaned against each other. That old sickening feeling returned: that every moment of my life I had been a fool.”
Miller does her best to keep the seclusion on Circe, but at times the novel does feel stuck. The chapters in her life are isolated, the connections between them loose, and it’s hard to get excited when the island receives its umpteenth visitor. It would be nice if each one of Circe’s challenges prepared her for the next, if her life built towards some clear goal. But is that even a fair criticism, when Miller had to keep faithful to the original texts, and when our real lives rarely possess such momentum? Circe may be a witch, but magic can’t fix everything.