BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

The nymph who fights back...

Circe is the second book by author Madeline Miller, who also penned the successful Song of Achilles (2012), which detailed the relationship between Achilles and his lover Patroclus. In Circe, Miller takes the age old Greek myth and repositions it from the perspective of Circe, who has been a much maligned literary figure. Originally, Homer’s Circe was written as a powerful enchantress. She was a goddess descended from Titans, the daughter of Helios who rode his chariot across the sky every day to bathe the earth in his brilliant light. But by the Middle Ages, popular opinion of Circe had significantly deteriorated. By the sixteenth century, Circe became synonymous with prostitutes, and by the nineteenth century, she was no longer viewed as a Goddess; she had been reduced to a trope for sexually loose and wayward women.

Miller has attempted to redeem Circe in this book and give her a voice – the story of her life, in her own words, as seen through her own eyes. This is the main reason why the book has been celebrated as a feminist retelling of her story, because Circe spent centuries being vilified by male writers, and this book presented an opportunity to change the narrative. In this novel, Miller gives readers a chance to reimagine this traditional mythology in a new way, and attempts to provide other alternative viewpoints for Circe’s character, casting her in a more favourable and sympathetic light. The book makes us consider Circe’s actions, especially when posited in a way where the reader sees that Circe had no alternative - either defend herself, or be raped, and killed.

“I did not know what his men did. Watched maybe…I remember what I thought, bare against the grinding stone: I am only a nymph after all, for nothing is more common among us than this. A mortal would have fainted, but I was awake for every moment…I drew breath and spoke my word…his ribcage cracked and began to bulge. I heard the sound of flesh rupturing wetly, the pops of breaking bone…He fell to all fours. He screamed, and his men screamed with him. It went on for a long time. As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.” (p.164/165)

Although the story is ancient, Miller’s rendition has a strong, modern undercurrent to it – a palpable, searing, anger for the injustices Circe suffers; a shared feeling that many women can relate to in Circe’s character today – while still keeping the tale firmly anchored in the distant mythological past. Miller’s Circe is no longer a mere seductress, an Oceanid sitting on her island waiting be ravaged, then plotting her revenge to turn men into swine. In Miller’s version, Circe shifts from a fearful nymph into an autonomous and formidable witch. She has agency in her dealings with Athena, in her love relationships, and ultimately, in her exile, to assert control over her fate. This brings up another point: from Pasiphaë, to Athena, to Medea, and even Penelope, the women encountered in this book are not just pieces to prop up some hero’s tale, but powerful forces to be reckoned with, and central to this story. It is not only a retelling of the story of Circe from a new angle, it is also a book that details a woman’s personal journey and transformation.

Circe is a book that was a joy to read, not only for its fresh perspective, but for Miller’s skill as a writer. /Circe/ is extremely well written – filled with some achingly beautiful passages – Miller’s use of language is poetic, lyrical, and evocative. There are many pages that I noted down and will read over and over again. The descriptions transport the reader back through time and resonate long after the final page has been turned.

If you enjoy Greek mythology and you’re looking for a new twist on an old tale, Circe should find a permanent home on your bookshelf.

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