Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I am a bit wary of texts and materials that attempts to rewrite or reconceptualize stories and characters of the past. That is not to suggest that all previous, or future, attempts are inherently bad. Nor that the practice shouldn’t continue as some of our most beloved stories and figures have been created from the act. However, in many cases, the new imaginings tend to utterly alter the character or their origins to essentially be a completely new character, simply without the name recognition. As I said earlier, a bit wary of the practice, and, as such, I tend to avoid media that does so. Even so, I kept seeing one particular title pop up in conversations across my social media and curiosity got the better of me. And I am glad it did because Circe by Madeline Miller was such an intriguing and delightful read.

Circe takes its title, protagonist, and narrative from the Grecian mythos of Circe, the minor goddess and enchantress famously found in Homer’s Odyssey. She is one of the sea witches/nymphs that entices and keeps Odysseus from the shores of Ithaca a bit longer. Through this epic poem, and other stories, Circe becomes one of the earliest archetypes for the predatory woman, the sexually free woman, and the wrathful witch. Though that is perhaps not where her story ends. Madeline Miller reimagines and retells Circe’s story through her, and not Odysseus’s, eyes and perspective making her a more dimensional and sympathetic character without completely destroying the figure from Greek myth.

As one would imagine, it is not an easy task to accomplish, but Miller daftly handles the writing. Through Miller’s work, we get a, at times, tragic and humanizing backstory for Circe that explains how she happens to be on the “deserted” island that Odysseus comes across during his journey. More significantly, we are treated to a narrative that also shows us how, and why, Circe became the woman and witch Odysseus finds on the island. Beyond that, we are given reason and understanding as to why men, and gods, would find the lone woman worrisome, and why she has the reputation she does both in Homer’s story and the appearances she makes outside of it. Circe, within Miller’s words, becomes more than just an archetype or villain to be conquered. She is a woman full of flaws and virtues, that at many times are at odds, searching for purpose, identity, and, ultimately, a small sliver of hope and happiness that is all her own. In short, Circe is human.

While the focus of the book is on the titular character and her journey, through her actions and adventures, questions and conversations concerning the nature of man and divinity, the purpose and versatility of faith and belief, and the various ways and interpretations identity is constructed and seen. Admittedly, the story, itself, does not dive too far into these topics as, again, the primary focus is on Circe and her development. Still, even the approach of such material is given enough attention to merit further inquiry and thought and is effective in the book’s original intent of reimaging and reconceptualizing Circe as a character and narrative. This book is highly recommended by myself as it is one of the few books in recent memory that I legitimately stayed up hours past a healthy sleeping time to continue reading. Add that Miller appears to be currently working on applying her skills to the story of Persephone, and I would suggest acquiring a copy of Circe and cracking open its pages as soon as possible.

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