In Circe, Madeline Miller’s second book, we follow the steps of the infamous Odyssey’s witch Circe, who almost traps Ulysses and his men on her island. In contrast to the Greek poem where her character only appears as one episode in the many adventures of Ulysses, this book recounts Circe’s whole story and takes us on a captivating journey. Let me tell you what Circe is about, but be careful, I will mention some spoilers.
The theme of Greek mythology isn’t new to the author, Madeline Miller. Her first book, The Song of Achilles, was also inspired by one of the best-known Greek epic events: the Trojan War. In this first work, she sheds light on Patroclus, Achilles’ less famous lover. And similarly, in her second book, she seeks to highlight Circe, who’s only described as an obscure lover to Ulysses in the original myth.
An eponymous heroine
Circe is the daughter of the sun-God Helios and of the nymph Perse, and sister to Aeëtes, Pasiphaë, and Perses. She spends her childhood in the realm of her father, in the depths of the world, surrounded by a family that doesn’t love nor consider her. The only exception is her brother Aeëtes, to whom she’s very attached. Their relationship changes throughout the book and is one of the most interesting subplots.
Her real life starts when she is exiled on the island of Aeaea, in the human world, sentenced to live alone on a seemingly wild and remote island. It turns out as the best thing that could happen to her. She realizes that, finally, she’s out of her father’s dark realm and free to live as she wants. However, no goddess really escapes their destiny and the string of hardships it brings: Circe learns to stand up for herself, in a world where women are either infantilized, objectified, or vilified.
My thoughts about the book
I greatly enjoyed reading this book. Miller succeeds in adding depth and layers to the otherwise mysterious witch goddess, while recounting her story in an enchanting tone, reminiscent of the prose of classical authors.
Miller also manages to show us the deeply ambivalent and complex nature of gods and goddesses, made invulnerable by their powers, selfish, cruel, arrogant but also passionate, sensitive, prone to doubt and capable of love. Ultimately, more akin to humans than we imagine.
I had a lot of different feelings towards the characters, even Circe, in turns pity, annoyance, empathy, judgment, understanding, or affection. It proves that they are well-rounded and realist characters, relatable despite their godly nature. We may not approve all of Circe’s actions but we can see where she comes from.
I also loved to read about Circe’s learning journey as a witch. Some passages describe how she worked hard, honed her skills and powers, tried and tried again, on her own, without any mentor.
One thing I also enjoyed very much was the relationship between Circe and Penelope. When I started the book, I wasn’t expecting those two characters to meet, even though they do in multiple Greek poems. Circe and Penelope have nothing in common, apart from the man they both loved, Ulysses; and it’s exactly what should set them as enemies. Yet, as they live under the same roof and learn about each other, there is a reciprocal unsaid admiration and understanding that develops. This unexpected relationship amounts to a heart-warming event at the end of the book, that you will have the pleasure to discover yourself.
As a whole, the book deals with issues of identity and self-identity, personal growth, family issues, and self-assertion. Coupled with the interesting characters and the trials the protagonist has to face, Circe was a formidable adventure to read.