Circe, the sun-god’s daughter. Circe, the lover of Odysseus. Circe, the witch feared by Gods and men alike. Behind every Greek myth is a history waiting to be revealed…
Women usually get the short straw in Greek mythology. It’s almost like it was all written by men, for men (shhh). Circe is a rare exception to the endless ranks of the abducted, the abused and the abandoned – a wily, powerful sorceress who turns men into beasts and nymphs into monsters. Having loved The Song of Achilles, I was very excited to see what Madeline Miller did with her story.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Miller’s prose is never less than a delight, a deft first-person narration – Circe’s story in Circe’s words – garnished with occasional flourishes that brought to mind the oral tradition of her sources. It’s a lovely touch, and it sets the stage for an intimate tale of love and rage.
I’d seen this described as a feminist fantasy – apt, given what I knew of Circe – and while I think it is, it’s no polemic. It’s feminist in what (and who) it chooses to focus on. Miller breathes fresh life into ancient tales, but she sets them in their original patriarchal context, acknowledging the misogyny and exploring the ways women could navigate it.
Circe’s world is one where women can be lovers or wives; where daughters must avoid being taken by force so they can be traded for influence and riches. Her ambitious mother despises her for not being a boy to secure Perse’s status as Helios’s wife; and for not being beautiful enough to wed a son of Zeus and win Perse a seat at the god’s feasts. Her sisters excel at barbed comments, undermining and mocking her at every turn: the less than perfect nymph who speaks with a mortal’s voice.
Miller depicts a seething, toxic culture of divinity: snakes eating their own tails (and tales, often beguiled by their own illusions). It’s a god eat god world, where it be a mercy to be overlooked. Unexpectedly, it’s Prometheus – reviled traitor, eternally condemned – who offers a rare ray of light; and it’s his compassion for humanity as much as sympathy for his suffering that draws Circe to him and marks her out from her peers.
Like Prometheus, humanity is her weakness. It is her unmentionable love for mortals that finally drives Circe to study witchcraft. It’s no surprise that while her brother is openly a witchking in Colchis, when Circe confesses to turning her powers against her rival Scylla, she’s banished. Women who wield power too openly must be put in their place.
A spat between nymphs hardly deserves a Promethean punishment, but her rather glamorous exile is in truth a subtle slight to Zeus’s authority. Even in exile, she’s a tool to be deployed for her father’s gain. On the other hand, she no longer has awful relatives bullying her at every opportunity, and the housework takes care of itself.
It could be an awful lot worse.
It gets worse.
I have two quibbles with Miller’s retelling: the first is that she inserts a rape into Circe’s exile. Can we just… not. Just for once. Can we strive for narratives where this is not the catalyst for a female character’s development? Circe is one of the few women in Greek myth who isn’t assaulted: adding it sits badly with me.
On the other hand, it is internally consistent with the world presented to us: nymphs are raped, it’s part of the script. Circe is made vulnerable by her affinity for humans; she welcomes them to her island. Of course they jump her. And it neatly explains why she begins turning men into pigs (and I defy you not to cheer her on).
My other quibble is the incessant warfare between its female characters. There’s non sisterhood here, no support network. The women in this world vie ruthlessly with one another, jealous of any power and influence they have achieved. So Circe is permitted no female allies, just an endless line of female antagonists. It’s only in the final act she has what appears to be a chance at a friendship, and it comes so loaded with baggage that it’s difficult to trust in.
Nonetheless, Circe it’s a magical read, encompassing Helios’s halls in the underworld and the glory of Knossos to the terror of Scylla’s rocky outcrop and the homely welcome of Circe’s own hearth on Aeaea. Miller artfully interweaves strands from the many myths that overlap Circe’s, giving them substance within her world and embedding her gods within ours.
If it’s a retelling of classic myths, it’s also a tale of the end of myths. The great age of Olympus is fading. Miller gives us tarnished heroes; spiteful goddesses; dead nymphs. But where its heroes fail, its women endure. Circe, Pasiphae, Penelope, Medea – even Scylla, after a fashion – refuse to accept the fate handed to them, and use their wits and their powers to carve out one they can accept (even when Athena would really rather they just did as she bids them).
By turns heartbreaking and triumphant, Circe is the tale of a woman who learns – through many trials – to take her fate into her own hands. If the ending isn’t what I expected, it is what this version of Circe deserves and my sore heart certainly appreciated it.