Circe is a fascinating and creative imagining of the life of Circe, a character mentioned in The Odyssey as one of Odysseus’ lovers on his travels from the Trojan War back home. In The Odyssey, Circe is a witch who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs but is then herself bested and tamed by Odysseus (with help from Hermes). In Circe, when Circe hears how the bards sing of her, she thinks,
Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.
In the hands of Madeline Miller, known for her brilliant novel Song of Achilles, we see that Circe’s story is more complex and interesting than what is presented in The Odyssey. Circe is an immortal but not a goddess; she is the daughter of the Titan Helios and the nymph Perse, but she is also a witch, and thus a threat to the gods. In creating a story for Circe, Miller has crafted a tale of female wisdom and empowerment as well as an epic featuring a strong and clever female fighter. Circe will have to outwit the gods and face a series of tests as she determines for herself what is an ideal life and how to achieve it.
In some ways, Circe reads like a fairy tale. As a child in her father’s palace, Circe never quite fits in and is usually unnoticed by everyone. She is the first child of Helios and Perse but underwhelms from the moment she is born. Her own father says she looks less than pleasing; he is a sun god with burning eyes and golden hair. Circe’s eyes are yellow, her hair is streaked, and her voice is described as sounding like a shriek. Perse, a vain and ambitious naiad, suggests that they just go about creating more children and hoping for better next time. Immortal children such as Circe grow rapidly; her infancy lasts a matter of hours, and she is soon joined by a sister Pasiphae and brother Perses. They look more pleasing to their parents and are pampered and spoiled. They and their mother taunt and tease Circe endlessly, and so she generally avoids them. This is not too hard to do, since her father’s palace is filled with aunts, uncles and cousins, all of whom are lesser gods and nymphs. Circe hangs around near her father and uncles, who barely notice her. Because she is essentially invisible to the crowd, Circe is able to get away with something that would otherwise have brought Zeus’ anger down upon her and her family — she brings nectar to and speaks briefly with Prometheus after his punishment for assisting mortals has begun. Circe is fascinated with mortals and with Prometheus, and her interaction with him will have impact on the rest of her life.
After the birth of another sibling Aeetes, Circe volunteers to act as a nanny for him. Her life is richer and happier for having this little brother who seems to like her and enjoy her company, but, of course, this cannot last. Helios’ children grow up quickly and are meant to marry well and rule kingdoms, except for Circe, that is. After her siblings have moved away, Circe finds herself alone and ignored again, until the day a mortal fisherman named Glaucos arrives in the secret cove that Circe visits. Her desire for his love will lead to a series of actions on Circe’s part that will have disastrous consequences leading to her exile to the island of Aiaia. Completely alone on an island with every comfort she could need, Circe begins to understand and develop her abilities in the area of witchcraft or pharmaka. Although she is forbidden to leave Aiaia, Circe occasionally gets visitors. Hermes checks in regularly and becomes Circe’s lover. He updates her on gossip but enjoys tormenting her as well. A more welcome guest is the mortal Daedalus, the famous inventor, sent to fetch Circe to her sister’s kingdom to assist in the birth of the child who will be known as the Minotaur. Eventually, despite Circe’s wishes, Aiaia becomes a place to send “difficult daughters.” A series of nymphs are sent to Aiaia for punishment and to act as Circe’s servants, almost as a sort of prison time. Circe is annoyed by this, as it gets in the way of working on her pharmaka skills, but Hermes finds this funny. He suggests that Circe take the nymphs to her own bed for pleasure. When Circe says they would run from her, Hermes replies
“Nymphs always do,” he said. “But I’ll tell you a secret: they are terrible at getting away.”
Hermes thinks this is a clever and hilarious insight, but Circe is horrified. Not long after this, a ship of ragged sailors finds Aiaia. Circe welcomes them and displays hospitality; she provides a feast and fills them with food and drink. Yet too late she sees that these men, now aware she has no man to protect her and that she has fine possessions, will harm her. What happens next is horrific, and Circe’s first use of magic to turn men into pigs results from this. By the time Odysseus’ ship arrives at Aiaia, Circe has had quite a lot of practice dealing with shipwrecked mortal sailors. The interaction between Circe and Oysseus is not quite what we find in Homer, but Circe does find herself falling in love with Odysseus. He tells her stories of the Trojan War and of his home and family. She knows he must leave and does what she can to assist him. Odysseus does not know, however, that Circe is pregnant with his child.
Giving birth to and raising a mortal son is another turning point for Circe. Miller’s descriptions of motherhood, especially when raising a fussy and difficult baby, will resonate for many parents, as will the ferocity of Circe’s love for her son Telegonus. When Circe feels that Telegonus is under threat from Athena, she will go to any lengths to protect his mortal life. This is perhaps my favorite part of the book, because it is here that Circe begins to realize what it is she wants for herself and to accept that her child must be allowed to live life as he wishes, not as she demands. Circe also begins to recognize her own power and intelligence. She is braver than Odysseus ever was, and she is selfless, which Odysseus never was.
By the end of this novel, I was thinking of some of the themes that I encountered in the second book I reviewed for CBR10 — Mary Beard’s Women and Power. In it, she suggests that rather than women changing themselves to fit the norms that have traditionally been associated with wielding power, our notions of power should change. This is a realization that Circe has for herself in a pivotal section of the story where she encounters a creature of great might.
I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer.
Then, child, make another.
Circe will try to make another world for herself, but not just for herself. Miller brings in several other characters from The Odyssey and provides more to their stories, as well as opportunities for them to make another world for themselves, to resist the prevailing notion of power as exemplified by the gods and those who would emulate them. Circe is a novel about resistance and (mortal) people power, and it’s an excellent epic in its own right.
If you are interested in reading The Odyssey, please try Emily Wilson’s translation. It’s excellent.