Circe by Madeline Miller

Note: As the book is a relatively close retelling of ancient mythology, I’m not sure where the line is drawn between “spoilers” and “more or less common knowledge, especially if you read the ‘Circe’ Wiki article”. I’m going to try my best, but if you would prefer to go into Circe with zero prior knowledge of Greek myth, this is your warning to backspace now!

As I sit to write this review, my feelings towards Circe are complicated. I can’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. But I also can’t deny that I’m frustrated it wasn’t… more.

Circe is a retelling of the Greek myth of Circe, a witch and daughter of the sun god (or, more properly, titan) Helios, and best known for transforming Odysseus’ sailors into swine. It follows her from her childhood, when she first discovered her magical powers, to her lonely exile on the island where she will eventually meet said hero. Until that fateful meeting, the book is relatively episodic in nature. Gods and mortals drift in and out of Circe’s life; though she changes them (sometimes literally, into pigs) and is changed by them, their paths soon diverge again. The book is thus definitely literary fantasy and makes no pretense that theme, character, and prose come above plot.

This may sound silly, but I really loved the actual reading of this book. Miller certainly has a way with words, a way with describing the supernatural and mythical that really draws you in. Here, for example, is an early meeting of Circe and Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods to give to humans:

After all those hours at my father’s feet, I had learned to nose out power where it lay. Some of my uncles had less scent than the chairs they sat on, but my grandfather Oceanos smelled deep as rich river mud, and my father like a searing blaze of just-fed fire. Prometheus’ green moss scent filled the room.

This is where the book excels, in lush descriptions and in wry, bitter observations. It was like a great chain of fear, Circe remarks on life as presented in Greek myth: from the Olympian gods at the top, all the way down to lesser immortals like her, little better than humans. I love mythological retellings for the sense of wonder they give me. Circe absolutely delivers.

I also found it interesting to follow Circe herself. She’s a very lonely person. She’s different from almost all her vast extended family, primarily in that she has feelings towards mortals other than lust, possessiveness, and/or rage. However, as a goddess who’s lived for eons, it’s not as though she can quite fit in with them mortals either. For most of the book, she’s “stuck” both physically and emotionally: first amidst a family who torments or ignores her, and then on an island where non-animal company comes only by chance in the form of a passing ship. I was rooting very hard for to become “unstuck” by chapter three.

Other characters are necessarily less “deep” — as said before, most of them wander in and out of Circe’s life within a chapter or two. The other gods are larger than life, often cruel, capricious, and with an eye only for their own amusement. And the mortals are all personages from Greek myths — Jason and Medea, Daedalus and Minos, and of course wily Odysseus, best of all Greeks — and so larger than life in their own way. I’m not sure how it reads for people unfamiliar with Greek mythology. For me there was enough fleshing out of these familiar faces to make meeting them exciting, but Miller stuck close enough to the traditional interpretations that I didn’t feel like they were completely unknown characters with an expected name slapped on.

So then, what of theme? This seemed to me the most important aspect of the book: it is an exploration of Woman’s Lot. The witch Circe has been a point of contention for centuries, often interpreted as an archetypal “femme fatale”, seducing men and then transforming them for her amusement. Naturally, the narrative here treats her far more sympathetically than tradition, attempting to explain such actions with something other than “them evil feminine wiles”. And there is discussion of other aspects of misogyny (as well as, a bit, of toxic masculinity). It’s centred on Ancient Greek culture, but their echoes are still felt in our current-day society: punishing daughters for things sons are rewarded for, physical appearance as a woman’s primary/only possible virtue, sexual assault (“That’s what nymphs are for,” says the god Hermes, in about as many words).

But although Circe is here portrayed as a sympathetic woman, she is also portrayed as alone. Basically all of her primary relationships are with men (father, brother, multiple lovers, son); the one close relationship she gains with another woman is through a man (a lover’s mortal wife). And most of these other women are jealous, vain, bitter, superficial. I am of course not saying that Circe should join in blissful sisterhood with every woman she meets, or asking only for sweet, kind, “perfect” female characters. To some extent I even accept that a kind of hateful competition between women is a part of the misogynistic structure the book seeks to criticise.

But. Circe ends up showing more tolerance towards Odysseus’ stupid men than she ever does towards her stupid fellow nymphs. But. Greek mythology is so vast and contradictory even a simple retelling involves conscious choice. In some versions Circe has a daughter with Odysseus; in some versions she’s the goddess Hecate’s daughter or student. (But. Does this book even pass the Bechdel test until in the last 20 odd pages?) But the fact is, at this point in time I’m just not very satisfied by a book that defends Circe from her archetypal role as a “predatory woman” by shoving that role onto the goddess Athena instead.

I honestly usually wouldn’t give quite as much weight to a critique of theme. But this book is literary fantasy: that’s what it’s here for, no? 😉 And I did genuinely enjoy reading Circe. It’s just that when I think about it after, the attempt of one woman to break her chains rings a bit hollow for me, when the rest of us are thrown back under to push her up.

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