In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe makes a brief appearance in Book X. She’s a nymph and the sole inhabitant of the island Aeaea, where Odysseus and his crew arrive in search of reprieve following their bloody encounter with the Laestrygonians. Malicious and manipulative, she invites his scouting crew into her wooded villa for dinner only to magically transform them into pigs. Hearing of the treachery, Odysseus sets off to free his men from her enchantments. With help from the god, Hermes, and an herbal concoction of moly, he resists her magic and forces her to restore his crew under threat of death.
It’s one of the many vignettes that collectively cast brave Odysseus in his legendary heroic form. And according to Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe, it’s a twisted version of the facts. Musing on Homer’s poem, Circe says, “I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
Here, one of Circe’s amendments takes center stage. Miller unspools a tale spanning millennia, granting the enchantress a context ripe for empathy and shattering the Grecian view of women as fragile delicacies. Born to the Titan sun god, Helios, and the Oceanid, Perses, Circe was the least-regarded of her siblings. She was brushed aside for unseemly qualities, such as her plain appearance and unpleasant voice. Her youth is one marked by unhappiness and searching for a place where she can belong—one she begins to find among the mortals.
In her first foray into human relationship, Circe finds love requited and a penchant for magic she didn’t know she possessed. But both quickly result in her exile to Aeaea. There, she begins to create a new life for herself, one leveraging her wounds to develop her gift of transformation, both inside and out.
Whereas previously Circe was portrayed as a cold goddess inflicting cruelties upon mortals, in Miller’s version she perfects her powers out of necessity, above all to protect herself from the inhumanities of men. She reduces soldiers to livestock not for entertainment, but for self-preservation. Even more, she converts her exile into a long-term holiday tending to the land, planting a luscious garden, and gathering with animals as pets and as her friends and defenders.
Along the way, Miller ties in a handful of other well-known myths, such as Icarus’s flight, the Minotaur, and Jason’s theft of the Golden Fleece. Yet, the tales are not carelessly scattered. Together, they provide a complex lens through which Circe matures as a character over the course of the novel. Though she comes from wounded beginnings, she does not remain so.
Instead, Miller offers an empowered rendering of Circe, one in which she learns to outsmart her opponents, to rise above her past, and to overcome her fears. Unlike her divine counterpoints, Circe begins to see the value of a life devoted to caring for others rather than simply her own self and in doing so she discovers how to truly live. Ironically, the goddess at the center of Miller’s tale finds a meaning greater than herself.
It’s difficult to recast a well-known tale without betraying a plot driven by agenda, but Miller does so with elegance reminiscent of its source. She flexes her imagination in a narrative that may confound those protective of the Odyssey, but it asks us to take a second look and consider the possibility that perhaps there is more to understanding than what appears on the surface.
Building Your Bookshelf
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Freshly enrolled at Edwards University, Phoebe and Will meet on a chance encounter and immediately click, despite their thoroughly different backgrounds. Phoebe grew up in affluence, but bears the guilt and grief of loss. Will, on the other hand, came from little and made it to Edwards on the generosity of scholarships. As their relationship deepens, Phoebe begins attending the meetings of a local religious group, led by John Leal, a former student of the university with a mysterious past. Her commitment to the group begins to test Will’s devotion as well as his wounded break with a religious past, all of which comes to the fore when Leal’s devotees take responsibility for a string of local bombings responsible for killing innocent bystanders.
The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
Hal is barely scraping by, trying her best to hold together the small shop where she continues the practice her mother started of tarot card reading. With winter approaching and her customers dwindling, she receives a letter notifying her of a massive inheritance willed to her by a recently deceased relative. The only problem is that the letter does not belong to her. Faced with possible eviction, she decides to use the skills she’s learned to deceive her customers to claim the inheritance. But when she arrives at the funeral, she’s quickly drawn into an unsettling mystery that threatens far more than her financial well-being. Ware, author of The Woman in Cabin 10, has delivered another mind twisting and thoroughly enjoyable thriller.
The Line That Held Us by David Joy
Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, David Joy’s novel sets off with a fury following Darl Moody’s accidental killing of a local man, mistaking him for wildlife. Enlisting the help of his best friend, the two attempt to cover up the killing for fear of repercussions, especially from the dead man’s brother. Gritty and brutal, The Line That Held Us is full of backwoods violence, but with a God-haunted atmosphere that pervades the entire plot. A remarkable read.