Trigger warning for rape
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is strange – not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. But she has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When Circe’s gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone cannot live in peace for long – and among her island’s guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything.
Circe’s tale is a vivid epic of family rivalry, love and loss – the inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright in the darkness of a man’s world.
I do not know a lot about Greek mythology, and I have definitely never read the Odyssey, but as I understand it, originally Circe appeared in Odysseus’s story during a year-long stopover he took on her island, Aiaia. Homer told the tale of her and Odysseus’s relationship, which began when Circe, a powerful witch, turned all of Odysseus’s sailing buddies into pigs. Odysseus himself was only saved from this terrible fate because he had some anti-magic herb called moly that protected him from this very scenario (convenient). Odysseus – in all his manliness – persuades Circe to turn the men back and despite getting off to something of a shaky start, I assume they all become friends.
As I said, I haven’t read it.
In Homer’s version, it seems that Circe is a feature in Odysseus’s story. In Circe, Madeline Miller dispenses with that idea (Homer, we are over you) and weaves a rich and episodic tale entirely of Circe’s own.
In a similar fashion to City of Girls, which I talked about last week, I really loved the sprawling timeline of this novel. We get to grow up with this character and see her through so many phases of her life – Circe as a young person, getting her heart broken for the first time, being exiled from her home, recovering from rape, and eventually her journey into motherhood and everything that happens after the birth of her son – though I can’t get too much into that, cause spoilers. Her character development is rich, with glimpses of the woman she would one day go on to be evident even during her childhood of neglect at the hands of her parents, Helios (as in the sun god) and Perse, a nymph.
Circe is an outcast from the beginning. From the moment of her birth when Helios declares her not good enough to marry to a god because she isn’t beautiful enough (to which her mother’s response is “let’s go make a better one”), Circe is considered the runt of the litter and treated accordingly. As such, it’s hardly surprising that Circe grows up feeling inferior.
Weirdly, having something of an inferiority complex seems to be a common problem among the gods. The toxicity and rivalry apparent in Circe’s own family spills out into the wider community as well, which is driven by men who all have one thing in common: they want power, and more of it, all the time. Even the literal gods feel like what they have isn’t enough. The gods are made up of two communities, Titans and Olympians – basically old gods and new gods. After a devastating war there have been many years of peace, but threat to that peace looms over Circe’s entire childhood, as her father and his friends agitate always for more, more, more.
This idea of power, who has it and what it means is central to the novel. Circe’s entire life has been defined by the unforgiving hand of her father, and she is years into her adulthood and her exile before she really understands how she can reclaim some of that power for herself – and keep reclaiming it, even as men continue to try and take it from her.
It’s a gorgeously written novel of survival, and of carving space for yourself even when you have to do that without the love and the support of those supposedly closest to you. Loss runs through its pages – a side effect of being immortal, I guess – but not all those losses are bad. Changing your life involves a lot of loss, after all. But Circe will tell you more about that.