Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe (ARC)Circe by Madeline Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is been a long time since I got through a book so quickly. It took me a day. It’s impossible to keep away from this book once you’ve begun it. Madeline Miller is incredible in the way that she spins a yarn. Circe takes you across the entire landscape of the Greek myths, covering everybody from Helios to Kronos, from Helen and Paris, to the war and heroes of Troy. You encounter monsters such as Scylla, the Minotaur, and the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus on his return home to Ithaca. It’s a feast. If you are a lover of the myths, then this book is absolutely unavoidable

I don’t believe I’d even heard of Circe before this. Or least, she was never portrayed as a major character. True enough, even in this novel, we are reminded time and again that she is little more than the nymph with limited powers. But Circe is a goddess of magic; sometimes a nymph, witch, enchantress or sorceress. Daughter of the Titan sun god Helios, and Perse, one of the three thousand Oceanid nymphs. Her brothers were Aeetes, keeper of the Golden Fleece, and Perses. Her sister was Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur.

Still, when it came down to her own power Circe was limited more by her lack of self-belief than any absence of ability. She turns out to be one of the greatest sorceresses of the Hellenic world. She is shunned in childhood by her parents and siblings alike. At best she receives handouts of pity from her father. Her mother is disgusted by her, and her siblings think of her as the ugly duckling version of their divinity. Circe’s tale begins with this damnation; we are introduced to her as she is set to fail, exiled, and left utterly alone.

As a nymph and part god, the rules and laws of humankind do not bind Circe, and she finds her isolation as the perfect whetting stone upon which she explores and embraces her witchcraft. Circe’s life expands and matures as she finds herself a player in major Greek tragedies – her sister Pasiphaë is wife to Minos, king of Crete, and also the mother of the Minotaur. Her niece, Ariadne would be the one to help Theseus defeat the Minotaur – her half-brother. Medea – lover of Jason, is Circe’s niece, daughter of her brother Aëtees. Medea would go on to kill her own brother and children in her mad love for Jason.

But perhaps most significantly, Circe would be the lover of great gods and men alike. Among them Hermes the trickster God. Daedalus, the greatest craftsmen that ever lived (and creator of the Labyrinth), and most famously Odysseus, with whom she has a son – Telegonus. In the context of the great Greek myths that we have grown up reading, Circe’s presence is ubiquitous and it begs the question how come we did not know more of her? How come you did not hear about this powerful nymph-turned-goddess-turned-mortal in the entirety of her tale until now?

It doesn’t escape my notice that this is a Hellenic feminist novel! Maybe it was completely unintentional, but I don’t think so. Circe’s entire life is plagued by the vagaries of patriarchy, godhood, and the whims and fancies of those who quite simply, possess greater power than she. It is through brutal millennia of isolation that force her into the goddess she becomes, fearless, and single – by choice. She takes on not just Athena, but ultimately her own brother and father as well. I read recently an account by Mary Beard where Telemachus, Odysseus’ and Penelope’s son tells his mother to shut up in court. Circe doesn’t have any of that. In her home, on her island is Aiaia, she rules. Her son will not rule her. The pirates and sailors that come knocking at her door for help and favours do not rule her. No man, no matter how dear, will ever get the better of her.

Madeline Miller, in the tradition of her first wonderful novel, the Song of Achilles, continues that golden streak with this book. It is rich, wild with imagination, and beautifully told. At many points in the book, I am a child again being told a bedtime story, that, much to my delight, did not come to a close so soon. But as all good things must end, so does Circe. But not a moment too soon. Absolutely, 100%, a five-star novel.

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