'Circe' is a new take on traditionally misogynistic Greek mythology

by Florida Huff | 1/25/19 2:00am

At once a stunningly evocative retelling of Greek mythology and a commentary on mortality, motherhood, resilience and female agency, “Circe” by Madeline Miller intertwines the fantastic with the familiar, shaping a narrative whose supernatural exterior ultimately serves to tell an altogether human story of a woman’s life.

The novel relates the tale of Circe, the sorceress known for transforming Odysseus’ crew into pigs in “The Odyssey.” Circe, the daughter of sun god Helios, is born into the cruel world of the Greek gods, in which power and beauty reign and time for the divine stretches to eternity. 

Half Titan and half nymph, yet plain and powerless, Circe doesn’t belong in the house of Helios. Scorned by her family for her dullness, Circe seeks companionship elsewhere: in the company of a young mortal fisherman named Glaucos. Knowing that the two cannot be together while he is human, she prays for Glaucos’ transformation into his true self, using powers even she is not aware of to turn him into a sea-god. But Glaucos, bolstered by his newfound immortality, casts Circe aside. A jealous and betrayed Circe transforms Glaucos’ betrothed Scylla into a horrific sea monster and is exiled from Helios’ palace for her witchcraft.

Alone in exile, Circe’s true tale begins. She discovers strength in honing her sorcery with the herbs on the island of Aeaea, commences a tumultuous affair with Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and travels to Crete to assist her sister in giving birth to the monstrous Minotaur, falling in love with the mortal inventor Daedalus while on the island. 

But upon arriving back to Aeaea, Circe is brutally assaulted by sailors emboldened by her vulnerability as a solitary woman. Disillusioned with mortals and convinced of man’s cruelty and greed, Circe protects herself and her island the only way she can: with her sorcery.

Through her witchcraft Circe encounters the legendary Odysseus, and the consequences of the year they share together test Circe’s tenacity, courage, sorcerous power and newfound independence in ways that alter her world forever.

Miller’s prose is vivid and captivating, witty and profoundly wise. Evocative imagery conjures the splendor of Helios’ palace and the enduring beauty of the Greek isles, transporting the reader into parallel worlds of black marble and lush greenery, of salt and sun and blood. Every sentence is crafted with delicate care, designed to fit perfectly within the narrative and yet able to stand alone as a verse of poetry. This lyricism breathes life into the story, transforming it from a novel into a work of art.

Miller’s interpretations of classic Greek myths, such as Prometheus’s fire, Jason’s slaughter of the Minotaur, Daedalus’ labyrinth, Icarus’ wax wings, Scylla’s terrorization of the seas and Odysseus’ epic return to Ithaca add authenticity to the narrative and are sure to delight readers already familiar with Greek mythology. Miller spins imaginative and fresh recreations of these stories, weaving them seamlessly into Circe’s tale. Although Circe is absent in most of the original tales, her centrality within the retellings feels entirely natural and yet poignant in the way Miller redirects the narrative focus toward a woman.

But the novel’s greatest strength lies in its ability to transcend a simple retelling of the mythology. Although Miller’s fantastic depictions of gods, monsters, nymphs and witches place “Circe” firmly within the fantasy genre, at its heart, the novel is about a woman navigating her roles as daughter, sister, lover and mother and finding strength in a world convinced of women’s weakness. 

At the beginning of her story, Circe is naïve, witless and entirely dependent on others; she longs for love and acceptance from her father, her brother and Glaucos, and she marvels at those who dare to contest the authority of the gods. Exile wrests Circe’s passivity and dependency away from her. Only through living in isolation and harnessing her witchcraft does Circe break free of the influence of her divine family. She finds agency in the act of creation and takes pleasure in leaving her own mark on the world, however small. She learns that only she can shape her destiny.

Miller’s retelling of Circe’s appearance in “The Odyssey” turns the Greek tradition surrounding the sorceress on its head, abandoning a misogynistic portrayal of a woman in favor of a female perspective of pain and retribution. In Homer’s epic, Circe is a temptress and a witch; she is beautiful yet wickedly dangerous, manipulating men with both her sensuality and sorcery. But in the novel, Circe is a survivor of sexual assault, grappling with the rage, disillusionment and fear that stem from her trauma. She employs sorcery to take back the control she lost, to prove that she is not weak and to cope with the pain of her assault. Miller’s decision to alter the perspective of this storyline sends the decisive message that women are not passive objects of the male gaze; rather, they are active participants in the shaping of their own stories.

In the end, it is not Titans, nor sea monsters, nor men that test Circe more than any other trial she faces throughout the novel: it is motherhood. In protecting her son from the divine forces attempting to destroy him, Circe commits her most blatant act of defiance against the gods. The heart of the novel lies here — in Circe’s unwavering love for her child, in the sacrifices she makes for him and in the resilience she finds deep within herself to ensure his safety. Although magic permeates all elements of Circe’s relationship with her son, her experience with motherhood transcends the supernatural; this is an entirely human story of a mother fighting for her family against all odds.

The novel ends on a bittersweet note, with Circe discovering the value of mortality. At the beginning of her story, Circe becomes fascinated with mortals, transfixed by the fragility inherent to their fate: no matter their deeds, no matter how bright their souls shine, men are destined to die. She initially views this as a weakness; the lives of men are mere seconds in the span of an eternity. But throughout every step of her journey, Circe discovers that life is more tangible because of its fragility, each breath more precious because they must come to an end. And when her story does conclude, it is with the wisdom of a woman who has lived a thousand years, who has constructed a life and who has learned to make every second count.