While I’ve been much engaged in Norse mythology in recent years, the Greek myths and legends have always had a special place in my heart, owed to the fact that I grew up with them. Before the thick volumes of high fantasy, before the Lord of the Rings, my parents and grandparents would tell me of the Olympians, their mighty heroes and monsters. These stories are almost a part of my DNA and so I’m picky about modern retellings of these timeless stories.
Circe by Madeline Miller is a spellbinding read, a novel that humanises the sorceress of Aiaia in ways I could’ve only hoped for. A story which will sweep you off your feet, this follows the lifespan of the goddess and Oceanid nymph Circe, the strangest of all the Titan Helios’ children, his first with the nymph Perse. Her life’s journey is one that begins in parental neglect, all too common a motive for the gods and their children. (One could make the case that being neglected is better than your father eating you whole along with all your siblings, but that’s beside the point.)
Circe is, at first, much like a child — desperate in love, and without knowledge of her witchcraft, she turns a mortal into a god. When he does not respond to her feelings, Circe, in jealousy, turns the selfish nymph Scylla into the terrible, many-headed monstrosity; a morally reprehensible act, which leaves a deep stain on her conscience.
Once banished to Aiaia, Circe begins to grow in earnest, and hers is a spectacular change, helped along by a small but impressive cast of supporting characters — Hermes and Daedalus, Ariadne and the Minotaur and, of course, cunning Odysseus. I’d say spoilers to that last name, but that particular bit of trivia is a few millenia past the expiry date.
Themes and Characters:
This book will scrutinise what it means to be immortal, what it is to be broken time and time again, only to rise stronger than the time before. It is not an easy road — my heart tightened at the cruelty Circe endured at the hands of both gods and men more than once. She learns bitter lessons from both, but her own exercises in cruelty are rarely callous and undeserved.
Acting as foil to Circe will be every Olympian and Titan, every Oceanid nymph — self-centered, unchangable and unconcerned with anything besides themselves and their hedonistic pleasures, power-struggles and small betrayals. All but one, that is, although who that one is, I won’t reveal…though if you’re knowledgeable enough in matters mythological, you might already have a shortlist. A very short…list.
Mortals, too, are different from Circe. But where they run counter to the gods is, each is different. No one trait, good or foul, is shared between them. Odysseus could be no more different from Telemachus, for good or ill.
So many gods and heroes appear, whether washed up on the shores of Aiaia or before. I can’t describe how much I enjoyed Circe’s interactions with Hermes and Ariadne, with Odysseus and…many others. To mention their names would be to take from the surprises you’ll find within the novel, and I just can’t do that. I don’t want to!
Very Subjective Thoughts
I love, love, love this novel! I stayed up until 4 in the morning reading the bloody thing! I ignored my poor sweet wee girlfriend to finish it! I couldn’t function, I couldn’t put it down until I finished the whole damn thing!… Which happens to me a lot more commonly than I’d like to admit.
But one thing I want to underline — this is a story worth experiencing. There is pain here, but also love and kindness and so much more that words escape me. I cannot recommend this book enough. (And I’ve obviously tried!)
Circe is such a strong, likable heroine. Her journey will long burn bright in my mind.
Score and Totally Arbitrary Awards
I gave Circe a 5-star review on Goodreads! More importantly, it is now a permanent part of my Greek mythology headcannon!
Added to my to read list. And I don’t know if I recommended it yet, but you might like “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis (but if you’re picky I don’t know). It’s a retelling of Cupid and Psyche that I adore.