Early in the pages of “Circe,” the recent novelization of the Greek goddess’s life, Madeline Miller describes a meeting between the titular character and Prometheus. At the time, Circe is a young, unremarkable goddess; Prometheus is a prophetic Titan who has recently confessed to his ultimate crime of giving humans the knowledge of fire and is ready to be punished. Prometheus receives only a few pages of attention, and yet within that length, he is established as a complex, sympathetic and deeply intriguing character, leaving a profound impact both on the book and on Circe herself, spurring her to this realization: “That all my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.”
One cannot help but regret having to move on from Prometheus so quickly; alas, he has to meet his fate of being chained to a rock for eternity, and Circe has her own story to be told. Luckily, if this early and electrifying encounter can be said to constitute a sort of promise, the rest of the book absolutely fulfills it.
Miller’s uncanny talent for characterization makes the book shine from cover to cover. Prometheus is only one brief example out of a long string of magnetic figures, each one more compelling than the last. Circe converses with Hermes, the messenger of the Olympians, and befriends Daedalus, the genius mortal inventor; she argues with Medea, finds an enemy in Athena and, of course, hosts Odysseus and his crew on their way home from the Trojan War.
Any one of these figures is already well known to the public and captivating in their own right. What stands out is Miller’s ability not only to make them her own, but to make them Circe’s. To put forth a new understanding of well known mythical figures in a way that still feels true to their personalities is a monumental feat, one that an experienced classicist like Miller easily achieves. She attends to each encounter with the level of research and thoughtfulness that can only come from love, and this attention is so well articulated that it’s impossible not to share some of that love in one’s reading.
Circe herself is the character who most commands the power of this phenomenal narrative. Miller takes her as an opportunity to explore the complexities of womanhood, divinity and immortality. Circe perceives time and people as only a goddess can, and against all odds, the beautiful descriptions of the book seem to bring an understanding of that perception within the audience’s reach. The generations that pass between Circe’s meetings with famous figures are as vivid as those meetings themselves, and the ebbs and flows of depression and contentedness within an infinite lifespan are rendered with an astounding naturalness. The language itself is fittingly old-fashioned and formal, but also accessible, cunning and humorous.
Circe is not one of the most popular Greek figures; an exiled witch, she is known mostly for temporarily harboring Odysseus and turning his men into pigs. However, this novelization shows us her own side of the story in a manner so organic and enticing that it deserves a place in the ancient canon itself. Much of Circe’s story is shaped by her identity as a woman living alone; at every turn, people and gods alike judge her, misunderstand her and seek to take advantage of her. Circe knows the limits of her power and she finds herself helpless in certain situations. She condemns her murderous niece, Medea, for being foolish enough to believe that she can bend the entire world to her will using witchcraft. But Circe is clever and creative enough to fight back with her own kind of fire: A natural intuition for the workings of the world, a surprising vault of compassion which her fellow gods often fail to share and an iron will and sense of self. She is vulnerable yet strong, lonely yet self-sufficient. She is a quietly contained storm, knowing her own direction and, despite appearances, existing on no terms but her own.
The trajectory of this novel reiterates what much of Greek mythology already implies: There is no good and evil, there is only a long string of personal values and grievances that looks different from person to person. Circe is not “good” so much as she is perceptive and reasonable, and the antagonists in her story, from her sister Pasiphae to the powerful Olympian Athena, are not “evil” so much as petty and ill-tempered. Nevertheless, these qualities have monumental consequences on both sides of the equation. In the case of Circe, it is better and more fitting to see a character who is motivated not by justice or philanthropy, but rather by the simple quest of determining that her time in this world is meaningful and worth something.
Dismissed as she is, both by her fellow divinities and by many modern readers, Circe’s story as told here has much to offer the realms of feminist literature and classical mythology. It does justice to her immortality, complexity and ultimate humanity, while delivering on every promise it makes in its early pages. Unfailingly lyrical and meaningful on a sentence-by-sentence basis, Miller’s novel is a more than worthy addition to the world of Greek mythology and to modern literature as a whole.