Circe, Madeline Miller – Book Review

For my recent trip to Greece I picked up a copy of Madeline Miller’s bestseller Circe. What better companion for a weekend on a Greek island and five days exploring the ruins and temples of Athens? I thought. After all, Homer’s Odyssey is long overdue a retelling from Circe’s point of view, after Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Miller’s novel has been promoted on prominent witchy podcasts and it has just been announced that HBO are making a TV series based upon it. I have long been interested in classical witch figures (including Medea and Circe) and their reception in the medieval and early modern periods and so was excited to read this modern and supposedly feminist adaptation.

Circe is written as a fictional autobiography, told in the first person from Circe’s childhood over several hundred years of her life. It is ambitious in seeking to address almost all of the myths surrounding her and attempting to create a coherent narrative and smooth over inconsistencies in the source materials. Miller’s research is, for the most part, excellent and lead me to look up several characters and events I was unaware were connected to her heroine. The events of the Odyssey occupy only a few chapters and are not terribly significant in the story’s development, although the portrayal of Odysseus is complex enough to interrogate the original source.

The world of the novel treats the myths and gods literally, neither seeking to rationalise away their (mis)behaviour or downplay their power and physicality. Circe spends the first part of the book in the halls of her grandfather, Oceanus. There we are introduced to the Titans and other members of her family. The concept of immortality is explored, but not with any great depth or originality and indeed its treatment in the conclusion is rather unsatisfying. Circe is categorised by the author as a nymph – the daughter of Helios and Perse, with limited powers until she discovers the witchcraft she shares with her brothers, Aeetes and Perses, and sister, Pasiphae. Although the mortal characters she encounters address and treat Circe as a goddess, she is portrayed as close to humanity as possible. I presume this was to make her a relatable protagonist but unfortunately it detracts from the interesting premise of interaction between the human and the divine.

A brief note on witchcraft and herbalism in Circe. Here again, Miller has done some research and I can sympathise with the challenge of studying Greek herbs as a non-native speaker. Dittany (see my post on Greek herbs) is mentioned, as of course, is moly – the famous magical herb of the Odyssey that has never been conclusively identified. The author makes Circe, her siblings and their offspring, unique among gods as being born with witchcraft. However, despite her inherent talent, Circe must spend years experimenting with herbs to uncover their properties and uses, making many mistakes in the process. It seems she owes her knowledge as much to a long lifespan as to her ability to learn from the herbs themselves. Circe’s brother, Aeetes, fares better and is portrayed as a powerful and ruthless sorcerer. Later in the book it is shown that mortals can learn witchcraft too.

Circe’s magic derives primarily from herbal potions, the most potent made from plants that grow where divine blood fell. These herbs are so powerful, we are told, they can overcome gods. Circe activates her potions with spoken incantations which, unfortunately, are not shared with the reader. In a surprising break from tradition, she never gains her wand. Another curious omission was any mention of Hekate, who is listed as an alternative mother for Circe in some sources. Overall, I felt the magic was done fairly well for an author without a background in the subject and I enjoyed the prominence of plant-magic. Of course, I’d have been happy to see some amulets, curse tablets and suffumigations as well as potent invocations a la Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

My real issue with the book, however, is its supposed feminist credentials and the portrayal of Circe herself. She is depicted in youth as relatively naive, gullible and a bit slow on the uptake. Bullied or ignored by most members of her family, she craves the attention of her father, but fails to win it except in punishment. All of this would be fine if Circe matured and rose above her circumstances, becoming a strong, intelligent and independent female character. Yet while I saw overtures towards this aim, they were ultimately unfulfilled. Miller’s Circe is a self-pitying figure who never seems to learn from her repeated mistake of pinning her happiness on the love of a man. While some of the classical sources portray Circe as a jealous lover (although not, curiously, the Odyssey, which contrasts her with Calypso) her possessiveness is not shown as a weakness, merely motivation for her deeds.

In the novel, all of Circe’s principal relationships are with men: father, brother, lovers, son. Even when the character-as-narrator tells us she is using them or does not care for their opinion of her, we are given reason to doubt this. Furthermore, all her relationships with women are incredibly toxic. When not fueled by jealousy and competition, Circe treats other female characters as vapid and frivolous, beneath her notice – indeed she tells the nymphs who attend on her to make themselves invisible. I see no reason the author could not have spent more time developing Circe’s relationships with Pasiphae, Medea, Penelope and the nymphs and less on her various male companions.

In this adaptation, Circe is the victim rather than the villain of the story, more human than divine, trapped by her own past mistakes and dependant on men for validation. She is domesticated and declawed, racked with guilt over the consequences of her actions. She prides herself on her home and hospitality, and longs for conjugal bliss – like the good Greek wife she is meant to be the antithesis of. I found this portrayal bore little relation to my own reading of Circe as a wise sybil who gave good counsel to Odysseus and a passionate woman who chose her lovers while remaining independent. In humbling Circe to this extent, Miller robs her of the very ruthlessness and agency that makes her so appealing as an archetype. A witch does not need to be a constant victim of men to see them as swine, after all.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Circe as a refresher course in Greek mythology, with a focus on the Titans and their offspring instead of the Olympians. The novel is well researched and the events based largely on classical sources. Hellenic polytheists may take issue with the presentation of the gods, but at least they are treated as real beings rather than metaphors. I loved the descriptions of Aeaea/Aiaia, with its pine woods and lions, and could happily imagine myself living there alone, surrounded by nymphs and wild beasts. Unfortunately, the witch herself was far too watered down for my liking and I would certainly hesitate to call this a feminist retelling. I hope that instead it will inspire readers to investigate the source material and develop their own understanding of and relationship with this queenly goddess and witch of many poisons.

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