Circe: Exploring Character Identity and Motives

“It was their favorite bitter joke: those who fight against prophecy only draw it more tightly around their throats.”

Madeline Miller, Circe

At the end of last year, I read The Song of Achilles thus rejuvenating my love of Greek retellings. If you read my previous blog post, you’ll know I absolutely loved that book. I fell down a rabbit hole researching other myths such as Apollo’s lustful pursuit of Daphne and Medusa’s transformation into a snake-haired monster. I felt like a curious child again with my renewed obsession. Of course, I was compelled to read more of Madeline Miller’s writing. Her second retelling, Circe, begins with the tantalizing first line, “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist”. This hook immediately showcases the author’s masterful storytelling abilities; She hints at the ancient timeline of the narrator’s origins and even suggests that Circe has contributed to our modern lexicon. In the first few pages, Miller sets the stage to reveal a perspective we’ve never heard before. Told from the first person point of view, Circe rectifies her muddied reputation as a witch and temptress which is heavily informed by her depiction in The Odyssey. (Note: This review contains spoilers)

Circe is a nymph goddess, eternally exiled to the island of Aiaia by her father, Helios. She wasn’t born with powers like other gods and goddesses. Instead, Circe cultivated her abilities. Named the goddess of pharmakeia, she taught herself how to create drugs and spells using the natural resources from her island. Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know very much about Circe beyond her role in The Odyssey. In the Greek epic, Circe magically transforms Odysseus’ crew into a drove of squealing pigs. After Odysseus gains Circe’s trust, she agrees to turn his crew back into men. She invites them all to recuperate on the island where they remain for a year. During this time, Circe and Odysseus have an affair. In this retelling, Circe develops an identity separate from the hero with whom she is most commonly associated.

Miller reframes our society’s perception of Circe by showing Circe herself grapple with identity and belonging. In The Odyssey, readers may interpret Circe as an evil sorceress using magic to torment trespassers. They might also see her as a beguiling temptress luring men to stay on her island indefinitely. None of these words hold an especially positive connotation. Readers have a cynical impression of Circe and, therefore, have always misunderstood her character. The supporting characters in Circe likewise mistreat and misunderstand her. Miller capitalizes on the infamously cruel nature of the gods to demonstrate the root cause of Circe’s loneliness. As a result of Circe’s family’s treatment, she feels confused about her purpose in the world. Her physical isolation on the island symbolically mirrors the internal loneliness she already feels. I love these overlapping parallels. The novel shows Circe contend with the divergence in how others perceive her versus how she perceives herself. We can compare the prejudice the supporting characters exact on Circe to the preconceived notions readers have previously projected on her.

In The Odyssey, Homer doesn’t offer a valid explanation for why Circe torments Odysseus’ men. Previously, these actions seemed driven by her inherently cruel nature. By learning her motive, readers can sympathize with her plight. The author attributes assault as the catalyst for Circe’s villain origin story. This revelation dismantles the evil facade she projects to the world. We see this theme repeated often in contemporary stories such as Maleficent, Promising Young Woman, and Game of Thrones. The message aims to show women reclaiming their bodily autonomy after experiencing trauma by an abuser. It is also a reflection of the real violations women can experience in their homes, work place, and the public sphere. While I appreciate this introspection, Madeline Miller employs a woefully overused plot device to justify Circe’s actions. Rape and abuse have become a tired trope, particularly in women-led narratives. It ultimately serves well for the character’s redemption arc. Still, I wonder if there is an alternative way to demonstrate the fear and anger motivating Circe’s actions.

Circe draws inspiration from a variety of Greek myths to articulate how each encounter shapes the narrator as an individual. Initially, the novel elaborates on her birth, family history, and the drama that results in her banishment. While the character is best known from The Odyssey, Miller uses lesser known myths to illustrate Circe’s origins. The author intertwines unexpected storylines where there are gaps in Circe’s personal history. Rather than fabricating subplots, she integrates Circe into other famous myths to account for the holes in her narrative. This includes the Minotaur’s birth, Prometheus’ punishment for gifting fire to man, and the flight of Icarus. These stories weave seamlessly into the plot. I felt like I stumbled on an Easter egg every time I recognized a supporting character in the novel. These moments textured the story beautifully and made Circe’s life of eternal banishment far more interesting.

As I’ve said in previous posts, mythological retellings are hugely popular in our contemporary literature. Faced with some steep competition, Madeline Miller has established herself as a formidable force in this genre. She truly honors the origins from which she is writing. I often notice in historical fiction and retellings that authors take huge liberties to mold the story to their vision. Madeline Miller uses the Greek tradition to her advantage without departing too far from the text. Her prose is fresh and accessible for contemporary audiences but still feels lyrical like the original poems. I gave Circe a 4.5-star rating. I admittedly preferred The Song of Achilles. Circe, however, was still a joy to read. While searching for family and belonging, the title character finds acceptance from within and reveals herself as far more complex than I anticipated.

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