Circe, by Madeline Miller


The portrait that Madeline Miller has on her Wikipedia page appears to be the typical portrait of an etudiante, or better, a serious and analytical scholar: wavy light brown hair framing an angular, non-smiling face; the pale complexion of someone seemingly spending most of her time indoors; agile, sharp but dreamy dark eyes and a pair of small, oval-shaped, dark-rimmed glasses to complete the image.

Born in Boston (1978), growing up in New York and Philadelphia, and currently living in Cambridge (MA), Miller could be seen as the embodiment of the American novelist, were it not for her focus on classical Greek mythology. An ambitious focus to being with, as it has been one of the most widely known and, at times, intensely debated topics of inspiration for generations of poets, writers, critics, painters, and many other artists.

Following her debut novel The song of Achilles, which took a total of ten years to complete, Madeline Miller delights us once more with the imagined story of Circe, the nymph goddess daughter of the mighty god Helios (and the first goddess in Western literature). Diving once again in the Greek pantheons, Miller introduces the reader to the Titans, members of the second generation of gods, descending from the primordial deities and ironically preceding the Olympians (“new-squeaking Gods upon Olympus who had not seen the making of the world”). Comprising the first pantheon of Greek deities, the Titans included Gaia’s and Uranus’ children, amongst which Tethys - Circe’s grandmother, Hyperion - father of Helios who is in turn Circe’s shining, but seemingly heartless father, and Iapetus - who fathered the legendary and much beloved Prometheus. The Titans and the more recent, but powerful Olympians have a never-ending discord, in the middle of which Circe will be unawarely caught.

The first chapters of the book tell the story of Circe’s birth and childhood. One interesting element to be remembered is the prophecy her father Helios uttered after Circe’s birth, namely that she will marry a prince; not a son of Zeus (as her proud mother Perse had hoped), but a prince made of mortal flesh. Born without any particular talents or powers, Circe develops in the shadows of her more gifted brothers and sisters, not being able to shine in such spectacular company. Over the passing of time, however, this proves to be a significant advantage, allowing her the possibility to observe and learn of her world and the myriad of gods within it, without drawing too much attention on herself. When she is still a child, Circe witnesses the terrible punishment that her uncle Prometheus receives for defying Zeus by sharing with humans the gift of fire. Impressed by the cruelty of the punishment and the stillness and strength of the bearer, young Circe finds a moment to sooth Prometheus by offering him nectar stolen from the gods’ feast tables. Her curiosity is the beginning of her making as an independent entity: “ ‘Will you tell me, what is a mortal like?’ [young Circe] ’There is no single answer. They are each different. The only thing they share is death’ [Prometheus]”.

In between the resentment of her other family members and the indifference of her father, Circe’s youth is brandished with loneliness. There is no particular moment of change, of rebellion, but rather a gathering of such moments: the meanness of her family; the selfish departure of her younger brother Aeetes, whom she took care of since his birth; the indifference and self-absorbedness of Glaucos, the poor and aching mortal whom she helped turn into a god, only to witness his betrayal of her in favour of the beautiful nymph Scylla.  Giving in to her accumulated pain, and in view of her inexperience with the unfairness of the world, she transforms Scylla into a beast with the help of witchcraft and confronts her father with the knowledge just beginning to rise within her (“The worst of my cowardice had been sweated out. In its place was a giddy spark. I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open”). As a natural result of defying the ruler, her father, she is banished to eternal exile on the secluded island of Aiaia.

And here is where her life as an independent entity, goddess but more importantly witch in her own right, starts to develop (“I did not know even the simplest herb-lore that any mortal would learn at her mother’s knee: that wort plants boiled made a sort of soap, that yew burnt in the hearth sent up a choking smog, that poppies had sleep in their veins and hellebore death, and yarrow could close over wounds”). For someone ostracised to live her eternity on a far-away island, Circe has quite a busy and eventful life, meeting all the greatest gods and heroes of the Greek mythology. Despite her long interaction with Hermes (“I had scarcely known true intelligence - I had spoken to Prometheus for only a moment, and in all the rest of Oceanos’ halls most of what passed as cleverness was only archness and spite”), splattered with erotic encounters, and as a result of the perceived irrationality of the gods, she grows far more interested in humans, in the fragile yet daring personalities their mortality gives them. While she is temporarily forced out of her exile to help her proud sister Pasiphae give birth to the Minotaur - a half-human half-bull monster giving her sister the upper hand over her mortal husband, the king Minos - she meets the famous craftsman, artist, and inventor Daedalus, the father of Icarus, who was being held hostage in king Minos’ castle. From his dependable character, his love for his son and the strength with which he faces adversity, Circe learns first-hand of the impetuosity and braveness of the mortal soul, its capacity for immortality through art, its dedication to beauty (“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me” ). Before departing, Daedalus regales Circe his wonderful loom, a special gift present with her through much of her future life.

Many other myths and experiences intertwined with Circe’s story: the visit of Aeetes’ demi-goddess daughter Medea and the hero Iason, of Argonaut glory; the nymphs sent to reside on Aiaia as a punishment for their minor mischiefs; the escape of Daedalus and his son from Crete,  and the fall and drowning of Icarus following a too close proximity to the sun; the visit of a ship with mortal men and the ensuing rape Circe suffered from the commander, who led to the famous tale of her witches’ powers of turning men into pigs. Despite their famous nature, none overshadows her, serving as stepping stones for building her character, for her transformation from the shy nymph longing to be accepted and loved, to the strong and fearless sorceress, hardened against deceivers but capable of appreciating the beauty - and the pain - of life. Throughout this process, her compassion constantly battles her rage, the latter remarkably never gaining the upper hand.

During her whole life, Circe is caught in a continuous struggle having at its centre the mortals-vs-immortals tension: her own mortal-sounding voice, reason for repeated mockery and jest at her father’s court, renders her less frightening to humans and allows her to establish full-fledged relationships with them, thus developing a way of interaction rarely known to gods. Her newly gained knowledge offers her new perspectives, which allow her to see the irrationality and pettiness of the immortal crew, including her immediate family. At the same time, an ever increasing respect (and, at times, even love) develops for the mortals, whose fame is gained by the sweat of their brow, the risks they put themselves into, despite their awareness of life’s finitude and fickleness (“ ‘Do you know who truly wins wars?’ he asked me one night. […] ‘A mind to guide the purpose, and not flinch from the wars’ necessities’ [Odysseus]”).

Just when she is mature enough and has gained confidence in her witchcraft skills, she meets the cunning Odysseus, one of the most influential masters of the Trojan war, who even has the protection of the mighty goddess Athena. During the war, Odysseus is known as the voice of reason, renowned for his diplomatic skills and the self-restraint he is capable of. His familiarity when entering Circe’s home on Aiaia, his astuteness in not drinking the special liquor she had prepared for all mortal visitors, his apparently relaxed but vigilant manner of speaking, his capacity for wry deprecation, all work towards charming Circe - finally, someone to match her power and intelligence. Circe offers her island as home for Odysseus and his men for the better period of a year, helping him successfully accomplish all the dangerous and dark feats the gods ask of him. More relevant though, and brought about so subtly by the writer, is Circe’s own development in this story and with it, her capacity for reflection on the world around: “Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting [with Odysseus]. […] I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the prowd witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

The most wonderful gift she is to receive from mortals, from Odysseus: not his presence or his person, but her son Telegonus, born after Odysseus’ departure towards his homeland Ithaca, to reunite with his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. The experience of motherhood, witnessing her son’s tempestuous growth on the deserted island of Aiaia, is forming for Circe’s character: “I did not go easy into motherhood. I faced it as soldiers face their enemies, girded and braced, sword up against the coming blows. Yet all my preparations were not enough.[…] I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well”, making her aware that only now she has something so valuable she cannot stand losing: “My whole life, I had waited for tragedy to find me. I never doubted that it would, for I had desires and defiance and peers more than others thought I deserve, all the things that draw the thunder-stroke. A dozen times grief had scorched, but its fire had never burned through my skin. My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.”

All throughout her writing, Miller makes magnificent use of her capacity to bread complete stories - the one who brings Circe her last and most overpowering love is her own young and restless son Telegonus, in his innocent desire to know the world, his family, his famous father. In one swift move of destiny, Telegonus leaves Aiaia to travel to Ithaca, only to come back not with his father, but with his father’s wife Penelope and his brother Telemachus, whom Circe finds herself forced to protect against the powerful goddess Athena. Even in such situations there is possibility for learning: Circe admires the inner calm of the immovable Penelope and the reserved, yet grounding character of her son Telemachus. Going through all of these impossible situations with empathy and understanding, strengthens her character and makes her even more appealing to Telemachus. Like all wonderful stories, Circe’s tale also ends with one magical act: the act of her drinking the sap of the flowers she first used to bring Glaucos to his true nature - in other words, facing her fears. This is the ultimately humanising act for her, thus bringing the story in a wonderful, surprising yet fully expected full circle: fulfilling her father’s prophecy of marrying a prince, however in her own way - laced with mortality, and love.

An exquisite story of a transformative figure, rich in description and detail - almost a story affectionately and eloquently fighting the case for humanity. But, in reality, the story of one woman’s (albeit goddess) life: through pain and suffering, love and heartache, affection and desire, and all the way into motherhood. Through this book, Miller offers readers a very affectionate and accessible look at the Greek mythology that forms the basis of our culture as it is today. Either a very enjoyable refresher, or a wonderfully rich introduction to Greek mythology, this novel certainly fuels the curiosity for more.

The lyrical story of Circe the goddess and sorceress, an impressive being, with an appreciation for geniality, beauty and talent, a respect for inner strength, and a capacity for mercy (as well as a clear preference for pork :) - a powerful, mesmerising, and mystically feminist par excellence.