I went through a mythology obsession in college, a strong enough one that I almost minored in Classics without intending to. I’ve had an interest in the Greek and Roman gods as far back as I can remember. So when Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles was published, I added it to my TBR– but sadly I never got around to reading it. When Miller’s Circe was published earlier this year, I was determined not to let the same thing happen twice. I bought a beautiful edition (let’s be honest, every Circe edition is gorgeous), and this month I read the story.
About the book: Circe, the eldest daughter of a god (Helios, the sun god) and a nymph (Perse), is trapped between the mortal and immortal worlds of ancient Greece. Though she has the parentage and longevity of a goddess, she has the voice of a mortal, and is much more interested in the human world than the gods’. She learns early that she has little power against the gods and their ways, and that to exist in their realm is to be their plaything. So when Circe is exiled to Aiaia, her banishment is– at least partially– a blessing. On the island of Aiaia, she learns to hone her witching skills and take charge of her own life. She won’t be leaving the same way she came– under someone else’s orders.
“Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. No matter what I did, how long I lived, at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished.”
Ultimately, Circe is a modern expansion of a relatively small chapter in Greek mythology. While Miller does a great job matching up the details so that everything seems technically correct, Circe just doesn’t quite feel like it belongs in the canon. There were certainly times while reading that Circe gave me the impression of fanfiction– an excuse for Miller to play with pre-existing characters. Some references (or entire recaps) of known stories about the gods gave this book an air of tourism through traditional Greek mytholgy.
As far as familiar names go, there are plenty in Circe. I was afraid that my knowledge of the gods had gone a bit rusty in recent years and that references would go over my head. I am not at all an expert– but I did feel that I knew more than Miller assumed her readers would. Many of the side characters that make appearances in Circe’s tale are explained in plenty of detail, even on the occasions where the character’s role in the story seems so slight that it’s hardly necessary. The betrayals, the spurns, the banishments– Circe is so mild-mannered and quiet, so willing to accept whatever fate she is given, that the little secrets she gets away with and the punishments she endures tend to fall flat. Much of the tension of the story revolves around Circe’s introspection, but even when she notices how unjust the gods’ rulings are she does nothing but think about it. So little actually happens that every side arc where Circe’s story brushes with one of the greats seems contrived just to include that great god or goddess. I did find some of Miller’s characters particularly intriguing– Telemachus, Deadalus, Pasiphae, even Glaucos– but for every character I enjoyed, there was another that felt largely irrelevant to Circe’s main plot arc, no matter how often she thought about them afterward– like Prometheus or even Hermes.
“All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.”
Let’s go back to the fact that Circe seems mild-mannered. From my college electives, I remembered only that Circe was a sorceress with the ability to turn men into pigs. We do see that scene in Miller’s Circe, and it does have its place within Miller’s narrative, but to me that felt like the only piece of the story in which Circe was a strong, independent being following her own instincts. I expected to see more of that Circe in this book, but instead I found a woman unhappy with her lot, simply letting things happen and suffering through an uncomfortable eternity before she’s ready to act. Even when she does use agency, her choices follow the path of least resistance. The way she attained the poisonous spear-tip is particularly anti-climactic because it seems she is finally going to fight, but in the end no fight is required. So many of Circe’s choices seem to go this way. So many of her battles are invisible tests of will. So little seems at stake. Where is the strong, dangerous witch?
“I had felt untouchable, filled with teeth and power. I scarcely remembered what that was like.”
I can see why this book is so widely loved: the writing is easy to read and engrossing, the story emotional and beautiful in places (especially at the end), and the references to canon Greek mythology are plentiful and well-explained for the reader who’s maybe heard of Pasiphae and Athena but doesn’t quite recall their stories and personalities. It’s Greek Mythology for the layperson, perhaps. That’s not to say knowledgable fans will necessarily be put off by this story, but Circe seems particularly aimed at readers who want Classics: 2.0– the readers who will delight in the fact that Circe has none of the long chapters completely filled with names that can be found in Homer’s stories.
“Let him be a hero. You are something else.”
This review has been largely negative, and the fact that Circe fits a style of episodic tales that I just haven’t been jiving with lately probably contributed to my low impression of it. As did the huge amount of hype that preceded my reading. But none of this is to say that I hated Circe in any way. Though there were disappointments, it was fun to see some of my favorite Greek mythology characters again, and I appreciated Miller’s command of language. The ending made me want to dive back in all over agin.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I did like this book, but that enjoyment took some effort. The gods are still as fascinating as ever, but Circe lacks the sense of history that other mythological tales have provided for me. It’s gorgeous, but… a little empty? I’m still interested in picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and hoping that volume will be a better fit for me.
Have you read either of Miller’s books? What did you think?
The Literary Elephant