Friday, December 25, 2020

"Circe," by Madeline Miller--Fiction Review

Merry Christmas! Did I review a book relevant to the season? No, of course not! Instead, let’s talk about Madeline Miller’s “Circe,” a reimagining of Greek myth from the witch of Aiaia’s perspective.  

Madeline Miller

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

This was my favorite book I read all year. It’s part of the reason why I selected it for my final review this year. “A Song of Achilles” was good, but Miller blew me away with “Circe.” 

My favorite part—and this is a tiny bit of a spoiler here—are all the early scenes with the goddess Circe as a single mother. Not inherently a funny book, Miller presents the shock of raising a mortal son for a goddess as something both breathtakingly sweet and funny, because Circe who requires no food or rest to live, is still exhausted by motherhood. 

Circe, like a lot of women—even goddesses—in Greek mythology, gets a pretty bad rap. To see her image reimagined and rehabilitated by Miller in “Circe” is a really cool update. I’ve said this before, but for me, it hits all the same notes as Elphaba’s story in “Wicked.” We learn through the course of this book that Circe isn’t just some witch who turned men into pigs, and Odysseus shacked up with for a while—I mean, she is those things—but also so much more. 

What I don’t love about this book:

Circe’s family because they all range from apathetic to malevolent pricks. This is a bit of a cop-out here because I wouldn’t change a thing here with their characterizations; them being awful is what creates the contrast for us to see how Circe is different. 

Miller can be wryly funny, in that dry sort of way as underscored in Circe’s adventures in motherhood, and once I read that chapter, I thought, why isn’t every chapter like this? Ok, maybe that’d be a bad idea because this story is more of a drama about finding oneself and the nature of a life well-lived—but still, a bit more of that humorous tone could have found its way into this story. I was surprised by it because I don’t remember Miller exercising those muscles at all in “The Song of Achilles.” 

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Circe begins her story with a brief introduction of who and what the Greek Gods are and who her parents are—the great Titan of the sun Helios and the nymph Perse. She also explains the war between the second-generation gods—the Olympic gods—and the Titans. Like Circe’s father, some of the Titans threw their lot in with Zeus in the war. In doing so, they were spared the rest of the Titans’ fate, namely, being banished to the underworld. After the war, there was distrust between the gods, and in the society of gods, the Olympics were firmly the ruling caste. That means the remaining Titans were just as solidly second class, and the tension between the groups was constant.

From there, we get to experience Circe’s “childhood,” such as it is for a Titan goddess who grew into her adult body rapidly—like all gods. Time is also hard to grasp from a Greek god’s perspective. Since they are immortal whole human lifespans are nothing to them. While in her father’s house, Circe has three younger siblings, two of which are shits from day one, and the other one she raised only revealed his shitiness later on in life. Her uncle Prometheus, the Titan who brought fire to humans, was punished by Zeus, precisely because he brought fire to humans. Also, Circe falls in love with a mortal and is instrumental in his ascension to godhood—he then forgets about her for a pretty nymph named Scylla. Circe uses her budding powers as a witch to turn her into a sea monster. 

Soon after the Scylla incident, Circe gets banished to her island—Aiaia. There, her powers as a witch grow, and she only leaves briefly to help her terrible sister give birth to the Minotaur. Circe is, of course, horrified by the monster her sister whelped—they really never see eye-to-eye—and their relationship never improves. She does make friends with Daedalus, who builds the labyrinth that contains the Minotaur until it’s finally destroyed.

After returning to Aiaia, Circe devotes herself to her skills as a witch, which come in handy when a series of lost ships land on her island. Again, in Greek legends, women, even Circe, get short thrift, and the reason she famously turns men into pigs is fitting because the very first group that come to her island repay her hospitality of food and drink by attacking her. One of these groups of sailors ends up being Odysseus’s men, on their way home from Troy, as depicted in “The Odyssey.” She turns them into pigs too, but Odysseus convinces her to turn them back into men. They then end up living with her for a year before setting sail again on their adventure, which only Odysseus himself would survive. But not before she allows herself to get pregnant with Odysseus’s child—this is just a thing goddesses can do on command. 

Circe raising Odysseus’s second son as a single mother is probably my favorite part of this novel. It’s made all the more difficult because Athena herself wants Circe’s child dead. Eventually, it’s revealed that Athena wants the child dead because one day, he is fated to kill his father, Odysseus, who is Athena’s favorite mortal. This comes to pass anyway because even the gods can’t defy fate—a theme in Greek myth. It happens actually because of an accident. In the end, Circe’s son ends up replacing Odysseus as Athena’s favorite. Circe falls in love with yet another mortal, Odysseus’s firstborn son Telemachus, who he had with Penelope. This time instead of elevating him to godhood, she chooses a mortal life with him. What she learned from all her long years was the gods never truly got to live because their lives have no end—and therefore no meaning.      


Miller’s writing is so good, and her powers as a storyteller are so keen that you don’t need to have read any Greek mythology to enjoy this book. Though—if I’m honest—reading “The Odyssey” and “The Illiad” before reading this book makes this book way more fun. The reason for that is because, while those are much harder reads—they’re thousands of years old after all—they give you a context to the characters that you wouldn’t normally have. It’s come to my attention that Miller also takes from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” which I haven’t read yet—but once I do, I’m probably going to use that as an excuse to reread “Circe.”

My overall point here is that as a reimagining of a classic story from a minor character’s perspective, there are just so many examples of where this story and classic stories overlap. Finding the seams where they’re stitched together is fun—well, if you’re like me and go in for this sort of thing. 

“Circe,” the novel captures how Circe the character is a complex, beautiful woman. It isn’t just that she’s powerful and self-possessed, but also flawed and charmingly—if sometimes tragically—na├»ve. She’s a character that, even when she’s clearly making a mistake, if the book is doing its job with you, you’re still in her corner no matter what is happening.   

Parting thoughts:

I love this story because it builds off some of the earliest works in the western literary canon. It also serves as a great introduction to those earlier works, a great jumping-off point before reading those older stories in the canon. 

I believe that the classics matter, especially for the literary amongst us, because those old stories still undergird modern fiction today—though maybe not as directly as this novel. If you equate storytelling to painting, not learning about the classics is like creating a mural without a basic understanding of color theory.

From my experience, the best novels throughout the ages build upon earlier works—a sort of collaborative work of art with prior generations of storytellers. It might be argued that this point of view could stifle originality, but I choose to see creative originality as doing something new, with a different spin, while still being aware of what came before. I think that writers of all stripes are part of a community, and to act like they’re somehow not, or above that community, isn’t noble. What it is, is a great way to be perceived as arrogant and to become genuinely obscure.

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