My rating: 4 stars
In Circe, a retelling of an Ancient Greek myth that resembles a fictional memoir, Madeline Miller skilfully evaluates human emotions. This novel is most of all a tale about what Circe, the main character and narrator, learnt throughout her life and how that shaped her personality and fate. She came to understand love and how to deal with the fear of losing someone dear to her.
Circe is the daughter of Helios, a Titan and god of sun, and the nymph Perse, one of Oceanos’ children. When she was born, her father informed her mother that she would marry a prince. Perse was appalled at the prospect of her daughter wedding a mortal. Circe had two siblings who bullied and tormented her, because they thought she was stupid. She felt like an outcast, as no one cared or paid much attention to her. Her parents also considered that she was inapt.
When Prometheus, Circe’s uncle, was sentenced to be punished for defying Zeus, an old conflict between Titans and Olympians was close to be renewed. However, Helios was against starting a war, since Prometheus was going to be chastised for his love for mortals and not to teach a lesson to Titans in general. He was not the only one who had a soft spot for mortals, though. After Prometheus’ chastisement, as he was bleeding, Circe asked him about them and offered him nectar. She then borrowed a dagger from the treasury and cut her palm to see what her blood looked like. It was red, instead of golden, and without her uncle’s power.
Her mother eventually had another boy and, as her father spoke no prophecy, Circe was the one who had to take care of him. He was called Aeëtis, and they became close. But her happiness didn’t last. He grew up to be a philosopher and, after their sister’s wedding with a mortal king, their father offered him a kingdom.
One day she saw a boat for the first time. Aboard was a mortal who went to the shore. They were impressed by and enamoured with one another, and he returned many times to see her. Circe asked her grandmother to help him catch more fish, so he didn’t have to stop seeing her, and afterwards went as far as asking her to make him eternal, maybe by using some pharmaka – a word her brother had used to refer to herbs with special powers. Her grandmother was furious at that suggestion, thus Circe decided to do it herself. Following her instinct, she squeezed some flowers and let the sap fall into his mouth. He turned into a god! His new status changed him, though. He became more arrogant and didn’t look at Circe in the same way. When she finally realised that her feelings weren’t reciprocated any longer, she blamed another and acted accordingly.
Circe later confessed that she had resorted to the power of the herbs twice. Her father only believed her, however, when Aeëtis returned home and told him about what it was possible to achieve by using herbs and spells. He and Circe were pharmakis. They had the power of witchcraft. After consulting with Zeus, Helios banished Circe to a deserted island as a punishment for using her powers against her own kind and defying his authority. This decision is used to illustrate how men and women are treated differently. Not only did Helios only believed in the power of herbs after his son confirmed it, Aeëtis also wasn’t exiled for practising witchcraft. He was only to be watched over.
Although many characters are nymphs and gods, they all feel real, particularly Circe. After her banishment, she became much more independent, far less fearful, started to hone her craft and learnt new spells all by herself. She understood the extent of her mistakes and seemed to want to atone for them. Despite being in exile, she had various visitors. She learnt about what was happening outside the island through them, and their interactions provide the readers with more information about her personality.
Circe’s emotions are palpable, and her interactions with mortals are heart-warming, particularly before she realised that they were capable of great violence. Her empathy towards them stemmed from her knowing that, contrary to gods, they all soon died regardless of their deeds.
“It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.”
Overall, the prose is hugely gripping, especially when Circe is recalling the moments she shared with those she loves the most. But even when she had to mention at the beginning many famous gods almost in succession, in order to explain the historical conflicts between them, I didn’t lose interest. It’s only during a couple of the last chapters, as Circe was asked to tell stories about Odysseus, that the book loses a bit of its enchantment, because some of the tales don’t even include her. This is only a minor complaint, though, in comparison, for example, with how great the creation of atmospheres is. Before Circe’s banishment, there is almost a lightness to the descriptions. However, when she recollects her arrival on the island of Aiaia, they have much gloomier undertones.
“Outside, birds had begun to scream. At least I thought they were birds. I felt the hairs stir on my neck, thinking again of those dark, thick trunks.”
Almost all of the events that took place throughout Circe’s life lead to the outcome of the story. Madeline Miller managed to connect various myths (Minotaur, Medea, Jason’s fleece, Odysseus) with Circe in order to create a fresh tale about her, which is almost always engaging.