Mythological stories in general lack novelty. We have versions of the stories which already exist in our consciousness through tales heard and read since childhood. So how much can an author play around with a retelling? Stick too much to the original and it becomes boring, write something wildly different and it is unacceptable. However, Circe by Madeline Miller manages to find that ideal balance with a gripping retelling of the life of a minor immortal who is mentioned in a few passages in the Odyssey for turning Odysseus’s crew into pigs and then showing him how to get home after having delayed him for a year.
Miller manages to flesh out a more human character for Circe who was the daughter of the Titan Helios, the sun god, and the nymph Perse (the daughter of Oceanus). Because she is not as lovely as an immortal should be, she receives only scorn in her father’s and grandfather’s courts. Perhaps because of the disregard of the immortals, she is drawn to humans in a different way from the other gods whose interest in humanity is purely for the sake of self aggrandisement. Through the book, written in the first person, Circe keeps referring back to the bleeding and battered Prometheus tied up in her father’s court before judgement was pronounced on him by Zeus for helping humans. The implication being that her own view of the treatment of humans was impacted in some way.
Ultimately Circe is exiled, partly due to the politics played out between the Titans and Zeus, to the island of Aiaia which becomes her home. She teaches herself witchcraft and becomes a powerful witch and lives her life accompanied by wild beasts and the occasional visit from Hermes. It is at Aiaia where Odysseus, on his return journey to Ithaca after the Trojan war, encounters Circe. The way Miller tells the story, they are both fascinated with each other and find solace in each other without any element of entrapment. Even the crew being turned into pigs is explained as self defence.
Circe is basically a feminist story about a woman who teaches herself her profession, lives her own life without any help from her family and yet she is always willing to help those who need her, including her sister who despite all her derision for Circe, calls her for help when giving birth to the Minotaur. The completely new perspective that Miller gives on Odysseus, as a man who cannot accept going back to a small life on a small island after having been on the centre stage and been the guiding force behind world events, is fascinating because it is so plausible.
The story is, throughout, infused with the fickleness and perfidy of the immortals who are shown as self serving and basically full of themselves. In their desire only to be worshipped by humans but not really caring anything about the small lives of the mortals, is an explanation, as good as any, for why the religion might have died out. Even Athena the goddess of wisdom, does not seem have the wisdom to look beyond her own greatness. Only Prometheus is shown to have considerable nobility, grace and compassion. But then again, no human can possibly write about Prometheus without imbuing him with those qualities.
Miller has written a gripping and easily readable book, shedding new light on a lot of known characters along the way. We absolutely loved this one.