Review: Circe, by Madeline Miller

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Apr 10 21:22:30 PDT 2023

by Madeline Miller

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Copyright: April 2018
Printing:  2020
ISBN:      0-316-55633-5
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     421

Circe is the story of the goddess Circe, best known as a minor
character in Homer's Odyssey. Circe was Miller's third book if you
count the short novella Galatea. She wrote it after Song of Achilles, a
reworking of part of the Iliad, but as with Homer, you do not need to
read Song of Achilles first.

You will occasionally see Circe marketed or reviewed as a retelling of
the Odyssey, but it isn't in any meaningful sense. Odysseus doesn't
make an appearance until nearly halfway through the book, and the
material directly inspired by the Odyssey is only about a quarter of
the book. There is nearly as much here from the Telegony, a lost
ancient Greek epic poem that we know about only from summaries by later
writers and which picks up after the end of the Odyssey.

What this is, instead, is Circe's story, starting with her childhood in
the halls of Helios, the Titan sun god and her father. She does not
have a happy childhood; her voice is considered weak by the gods (Homer
describes her as having "human speech"), and her mother and elder
siblings are vicious and cruel. Her father is high in the councils of
the Titans, who have been overthrown by Zeus and the other Olympians.
She is in awe of him and sits at his feet to observe his rule, but he's
a petty tyrant who cares very little about her. Her only true companion
is her brother Aeëtes.

The key event of the early book comes when Prometheus is temporarily
chained in Helios's halls after stealing fire from the gods and before
Zeus passes judgment on him. A young Circe brings him something to
drink and has a brief conversation with him. That's the spark for one
of the main themes of this book: Circe slowly developing a conscience
and empathy, neither of which are common among Miller's gods. But it's
still a long road from there to her first meeting with Odysseus.

One of the best things about this book is the way that Miller unravels
the individual stories of Greek myth and weaves them into a
chronological narrative of Circe's life. Greek mythology is mostly
individual stories, often contradictory and with only a loose
chronology, but Miller pulls together all the ones that touch on
Circe's family and turns them into a coherent history. This is not easy
to do, and she makes it feel effortless. We get a bit of Jason and
Medea (Jason is as dumb as a sack of rocks, and Circe can tell there's
already something not right with Medea), the beginnings of the story of
Theseus and Ariadne, and Daedalus (one of my favorite characters in the
book) with his son Icarus, in addition to the stories more directly
associated with Circe (a respinning of Glaucus and Scylla from Ovid's
Metamorphoses that makes Circe more central). By the time Odysseus
arrives on Circe's island, this world feels rich and full of history,
and Circe has had a long and traumatic history that has left her
suspicious and hardened.

If you know some Greek mythology already, seeing it deftly woven into
this new shape is a delight, but Circe may be even better if this is
your first introduction to some of these stories. There are pieces
missing, since Circe only knows the parts she's present for or that
someone can tell her about later, but what's here is vivid, easy to
follow, and recast in a narrative structure that's more familiar to
modern readers. Miller captures the larger-than-life feel of myth while
giving the characters an interiority and comprehensible emotional heft
that often gets summarized out of myth retellings or lost in
translation from ancient plays and epics, and she does it without ever
calling the reader's attention to the mechanics.

The prose, similarly, is straightforward and clear, getting out of the
way of the story but still providing a sense of place and description
where it's needed. This book feels honed, edited and streamlined until
it maintains an irresistible pace. There was only one place where I
felt like the story dragged (the raising of Telegonus), and then mostly
because it's full of anger and anxiety and frustration and loss of
control, which is precisely what Miller was trying to achieve. The rest
of the book pulls the reader relentlessly forward while still
delivering moments of beauty or sharp observation.

  My house was crowded with some four dozen men, and for the first
  time in my life, I found myself steeped in mortal flesh. Those frail
  bodies of theirs took relentless attention, food and drink, sleep
  and rest, the cleaning of limbs and fluxes. Such patience mortals
  must have, I thought, to drag themselves through it hour after hour.

I did not enjoy reading about Telegonus's childhood (it was too
stressful; I don't like reading about characters fighting in that way),
but apart from that, the last half of this book is simply beautiful. By
the time Odysseus arrives, we're thoroughly in Circe's head and agree
with all of the reasons why he might receive a chilly reception.
Odysseus talks the readers around at the same time that he talks Circe
around. It's one of the better examples of writing intelligent,
observant, and thoughtful characters that I have read recently. I also
liked that Odysseus has real flaws, and those flaws do not go away even
when the reader warms to him.

I'll avoid saying too much about the very end of the book to avoid
spoilers (insofar as one can spoil Greek myth, but the last quarter of
the book is where I think Miller adds the most to the story). I'll just
say that both Telemachus and Penelope are exceptional characters while
being nothing like Circe or Odysseus, and watching the characters
tensely circle each other is a wholly engrossing reading experience.
It's a much more satisfying ending than the Telegony traditionally gets
(although I have mixed feelings about the final page).

I've mostly talked about the Greek mythology part of Circe, since
that's what grabbed me the most, but it's quite rightly called a
feminist retelling and it lives up to that label with the same subtlety
and skill that Miller brings to the prose and characterization. The
abusive gender dynamics of Greek myth are woven into the narrative so
elegantly you'd think they were always noted in the stories. It is
wholly satisfying to see Circe come into her own power in a defiantly
different way than that chosen by her mother and her sister. She spends
the entire book building an inner strength and sense of herself that
allows her to defend her own space and her own identity, and the payoff
is pure delight. But even better are the quiet moments between her and

  "I am embarrassed to ask this of you, but I did not bring a black
  cloak with me when we left. Do you have one I might wear? I would
  mourn for him."

  I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn
  sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that
  women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be
  crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no
  longer did.

  "No," I said. "But I have yarn, and a loom. Come."

This is as good as everyone says it is. Highly recommended for the next
time you're in the mood for a myth retelling.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-04-10


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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