“All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.”
Circe is the daughter of Helios, the god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans. Unlike her siblings, she is neither powerful nor particularly attractive, and is therefore rejected by her parents. Growing up in the shadows, she soon learns that she has a gift: she is able to perform powerful witchcraft. When her powers are exposed, she is banished to the island of Aiaia by her father to appease Zeus, who feels threatened by her abilities. While on the island she receives many visitors and along with them, faces several tribulations that will push her powers to their limits. The story is ultimately about Circe finding herself and understanding her purpose, both within the world of mortals and of the Gods. While Circe becomes an almighty witch, a trait she has inherited, her real strength is shown through her fierce character and spirit.
Circe has probably been the biggest surprise out of my Summer reading list. As an English student, I have been analysing the use of Greek myths in works of fiction for years without truly understanding any of it. This is part of the reason I had put off reading Circe: while I wanted to read more about Greek mythology, I could see myself becoming overwhelmed by all the different names and relations between the various Gods.
It actually took me a week to even get past the first twenty pages of Circe. Keeping on top of who is related to who in Greek mythology is a real task when everyone seems to have half siblings, some of which are half human (demigods) or even half animal. But, rest assured, Circe is perfect for anyone who is new to Greek mythology. The story predominantly focuses on Circe’s personal journey of finding herself, with frequent references to other well-known myths and Gods beyond her private island. This gives the reader a heroine to follow, as in many fantasy adventure books, yet still provides the opportunity to learn about a wide range of Greek myths.
Probably the biggest reason to read this book is because of Circe’s character. Circe is the perfect protagonist and I think she worked really well as the novel’s feminist icon. Like many women, Circe struggles to be seen or heard. This is evident through her soft voice which sounds almost mortal and means she is not feared by humans in the same way that other Gods are feared. While a literary fantasy, I believe that Circe is a character many women can relate to. Amidst its fantasy elements, the story also explores the pains many women experience throughout their lives: heartache, motherhood, in addition to being undermined or underestimated in a male-dominated world.
Circe is a nymph and a witch, both of which are figures who are usually depicted as sexually promiscuous. Throughout her life she navigates through various relationships with various men, all of whom are subservient to her powers and status. I have found that in many tellings of Greek myth, the women are always subject to a male counterpart, and the women or Goddesses in these stories rarely seem to have a voice. If they do, it is for being one of two things: the tainted virgin or the evil sorceress. Madeline Miller’s Circe completely revolutionised this idea by making Circe relatable by standards of our contemporary.
She is also constantly undermined and underestimated by all the Gods around her. While at the beginning she is portrayed as a quiet and unassuming Goddess, by the end of the story she is a powerful and revered witch. I’d call that progression.
The highest rulers are Zeus and Helios, seen as the most powerful within the God's kingdom, yet it is Circe who threatens to overthrow the two’s alliance because of her magic. Unlike the other Gods, Circe cultivates her powers through practise and intuition, rather than simply acting off emotion. She faces Gods who are much greater and more powerful than she is, but her quick wit and fiery nature always seem to get her through whatever situation she encounters. Circe has done awful things but what makes her almost human is through her ability to show remorse for what she has done, and to be able to put right some of her wrongs.
Miller did a fantastic job in creating a modern adaptation of Greek myth, which is known for being male-centric, and turning Circe’s story into an uplifting feminist story. A very different read for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and will definitely be looking to learn more about Greek mythology.
At times I did wonder where the story was heading, but there would always be another twist or turn to keep me interested. The descriptions alone were enough to keep me reading. At times I did have to remind myself of all the different names, but it’s definitely manageable. After a while you kind of just fall into the story and when you do, you can really appreciate Miller’s storytelling, which was nothing short of spellbinding.
You really don’t need to be a fan of Greek mythology to read this book. I think you do need to like fantasy, however, because it is obviously still a very mythical tale. If you’re thinking of reading Circe, I would say to give it a go. You might find that it surprises you, like it did for me. 8/10