A Feminist Spin on a Greek Myth
Circe by Madeline Miller
The witch Circe, a resident of the island of Aiaia and a rather minor persona in the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses, is best known for her encounter with Odysseus in The Odyssey.
In Homer’s story, Odysseus and his crew arrive at Circe’s island after a disastrous encounter with the Laestrygons, who destroyed all but one their ships. Odysseus sends an advance party to the island, and Circe turns the trespassers into swine. One lucky sailor escapes his piggy fate and relates what happened to his captain. On his way to rescue his men, Odysseus meets the messenger of the gods, Hermes, who gives him a potion that will overturn Circe’s witchcraft.
The potion works, and a dazzled Circe falls in love with Odysseus, releases his crew from her spell, and they all live happily together for a year. When they men depart, Circe uses her magical knowledge to aid them on their journey home.
With this incident as inspiration, Miller spins a fantastical but relatable modern fable about the infamous witch.
In Miller’s tale, Circe, who is not as pretty as the other nymphs, is raised in the court of her powerful father, Helios, where she is teased unmercifully. Like many royal courts, the court of the god of the sun is full of discord and intrigue. The gods themselves are an unpleasant bunch, selfish, vicious, and indolent. (The gods sounded more fun in Edith Hamilton’s version!)
Circe’s troubles begin when takes up with a boy, a mortal boy no less. Even worse, she secretly flexes her fledgling powers with disastrous results. She is banished to a deserted island.
As the decades go by (she is immortal), Circe adjusts to island life. She hones her witchcraft skills, entertains few visitors, and encounters Odysseus and his crew.
Even from a distance, vengeful Helios is threatened by Circe’s independence. As Circe repeatedly resists the overtures from her family, her very existence is in danger. Circe must gather all of her wits and witchcraft to survive.
A wonderful page turner but also lushly written. And my favorite feature, A Cast of Characters!
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS SAY
Alexandra Alter, The New York Times: “A bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from The Odyssey as a hero in her own right.”
WHO WROTE IT
Madeline Miller was born in Boston attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in classics. She lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and two children. Her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a retelling of the Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus, was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction and has been translated into twenty-five languages. (I haven’t read it, but several members of the Colton family enjoyed it.)