Countless writers have taken inspirations from characters in Greek Mythology for their quintessential characterizations everyone could easily recognize. Written in first-person narrative, Madeline Miller’s Circe follows the life of its titular protagonist as she navigates the world around her.
In Homer’s The Odyssey, Circe plays a minor role as one more obstacle that Odysseus needed to overcome. Miller, on the other hand, takes Circe’s story and turns it into an epic tale that spans thousands of years (gods are immortal, after all). Born as the daughter of Helios, the sun of God, Circe does not exude the beauty of her naiad peers or other gods—she is a lesser god among other lesser gods. According to her father, “Circe is dull as a rock” . . . or so he thinks. Circe discovers where her true power lies. When she uses it against one of her fellow nymphs, Circe is exiled to an isolated island called Aiaia. In exile, Circe hones her craft and makes a name for herself.
It is a feat to write a novel that spans a thousand years while making the story organically flow, and Miller has done just that. Her narrative never loses its cadence and, as readers, we find ourselves completely taken by Circe. The way Circe’s character develops feels authentic, and, it is where the strength of this novel lies. Miller’s version of Circe is one of the most captivating and genuine fictional characters I’ve come across.
There is a beautiful fluidity in Miller’s writing style. The story transforms from the ethereal world of gods to something intimate that all of us could identify with. Even though Circe is a goddess, Miller’s portrayal of her is deeply human—with all the strength and flaws that comes with being one. In Circe, Miller explores relationships, love, and mortality with a certain dynamism and tenderness that strikes our very core. One of the most poignant moment in the book that stuck with me is when Circe confronts Trygon for his tail, which serves as a poison to gods, in order to protect her son, Telegonus, from Athena.
“I felt the currents move. The grains of sand whispered against each other. His wings were lifting. The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of his gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer.
Then, child, make another.”
Miller’s Circe makes us appreciate the ground beneath our feet—the world we live in—with all its beauty and atrocity. Miller casts a powerful spell on her readers, and it is one that lingers for a long time.
**I read Circe as part of a book discussion group. It’s not a genre that I’d typically pick up, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed it. Highly recommended.