Circeby Published 10 Apr 2018
|Publisher||Little, Brown and Company|
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
Men, can’t live with ‘em, can’t turn ‘em all into swine.
What do you mean turn them into swine? From her earliest application of her new found transformative skills it is suggested that what Circe turns her unfortunate guests into has more to do with their innermost nature than Circe’s selection of a target form. (The strength of those flowers lay in their sap, which could transform any creature to its truest self.) Clearly her sty residents had an oinky predisposition. And I am sure that there are many who had started the transformation long before landing on her island.
Whaddya call the large sty Circe filled with erstwhile men? A good start.
Ok. You had to know this would be part of the deal for this review. So, now that I have gotten it out of my system, (it is out, right?) we can proceed.
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.It was a word that Barbara Bush might have had in mind when she described Geraldine Ferraro, her husband’s opponent for the Vice Presidency, in 1984. “"I can't say it, but it rhymes with 'rich,'" she said, later insisting that the word in question did not begin with a “b,” but a “w.” Sure, whatever. But in this case, I suppose both might apply. Circe is indeed the first witch in western literature. And many a sailing crew might have had unkind things to say about her.
Madeline Miller - image from The Times
Our primary introduction to Circe (which we pronounce as Sir-Sea, and even Miller goes along with this, so people don’t throw things at her. But for how it might be pronounced in Greek, you know, the proper way, you might check out this link. Put that down, there will be no throwing of things in this review!) was that wondrous classic of Western literature, The Odyssey. Given how many times this and its companion volume, The Iliad, have been reworked through the ages, it is no surprise that there have been many variations on the stories they told. Circe’s story has seen its share of re-imaginings as well. But Miller tries to stick fairly close to the Homeric version. Be warned, though, some license was taken, and other sources inspired the work as well. But it is from Homer that we get the primary association we have with her name, the magical transmutation of men into pigs.
George Romney's 1782 portrait of Emma Hamilton as Circe - image from wikipedia
We follow the life of our Ur-witch from birth to whatever. She did not start out with much by way of godly powers. Her mother, Perse, daughter of the sea-god Oceanos, was a nymph, and her father was Helios, the sun god. Despite the lofty position of Pop’s place in things, Circe was just a nymph, on the low end of the godly powers scale. This did not help in the family to which she had been born. Not one of her parents’ favorites, she was blessed with neither power nor beauty, had a very ungod-like human-level voice, and her sibs were not exactly the nicest. Kinda tough to keep up when daddy is the actual bloody sun.
Years pass, and one day she comes across a mortal fisherman. He seems pretty nice, someone she can talk to. She’d like to take it to the next stage, so she lays low, listens in on family gatherings, and picks up intel on substances that might be used to effect powerful and advantageous changes. She asks her grandmother, Tethys, (wife AND SISTER to Oceanos) to transform him into a god for her, but Granny throws her out, alarmed when her granddaughter mentions this pharmakos stuff she had been looking into. Left to her own devices she tries this out on her bf, making him into his truest self. It does not end the way she’d hoped. (Pearls before you-know-what.) Not the last bad experience she would have with a man.
Levy’s 1889 Circe - image from wikipedia
Her relationships with men are actually not all bad. Daddy is singularly unfeeling, and can be pretty dim for such a bright bulb, and her brothers are far less than wonderful, but there is some good in her sibling connections as well. She has a warm interaction with a titan, Prometheus, which is a net positive. Later, she has an interesting relationship with Hermes, who is not to be trusted, but who offers some helpful guidance. And then there are the mortals, Daedalus (the master artist, the Michelangelo, the Leonardo da Vinci of his era), Jason, of Argonaut fame, Odysseus, who you may have heard of, and more. There were dark encounters as well, and thus the whole turning-men-into-pigs thing.
Brewer's 1892 Circe and Her Swine - image from Wikipedia
Miller has had a passion for the classics since she was eight, when her mother read her the Iliad and began taking her to Egyptian and Greek exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It made her a nerdy classmate but was a boon when she got to college and was able to find peers who shared her love of the ancient tales. It was this passion that led her to write her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a reimagining of Achilles relationship with his lover, Patroclus, a delight of a book, a Times bestseller, and winner of the Orange prize. It took her ten years to write her first novel, about seven for this one and the gestation period for number three remains to be seen. She is weighing whether to base it on Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Virgil’s Aeneid. If past is portent, it will be the latter, and should be ready by about 2025.
Ulysses and Circe, Angelica Kauffmann, 1786. - image from Miller’s site
The central, driving force in the story is Circe becoming her fullest possible self. (I suppose one might say she made a silk purse from a sow’s ear. I wouldn’t, but some might.)
This is the story of a woman finding her power and, as part of that, finding her voice. She starts out really unable to say what she thinks and by the end of the book, she’s able to live life on her terms and say what she thinks and what she feels. - from the Bookriot interviewMost gods are awful sorts, vain, selfish, greedy, careless of the harm they do to others. Circe actually has better inclinations. For instance, when Prometheus is being tortured by the titans for the crime of giving fire to humans, Circe alone is kind to him, bringing him nectar, and talking with him when no one else offers him anything but anger and scorn. She is curious about mortals, and asks him about them, going so far as to cut herself to experience a bit of humanity.
Carracci's c. 1590 Ulysses and Circe in the Farnese Palace - image from Wikipedia
Livestock comes in for some attention outside the sty. Turns out Circe’s father has a thing for a well-turned fetlock, so maybe she comes by her affinity for animals of all sorts, albeit in a very different way, quite naturally. Her island is rich with diverse fauna, including some close companions most of us would flee. An early version of Doctor Doolittle?
Scholars have debated whether Circe’s pet lions are supposed to be transformed men, or merely tamed beasts. In my novel, I chose to make them actual animals, because I wanted to honor Circe’s connection to Eastern and Anatolian goddesses like Cybele. Such goddesses also had power over fierce animals, and are known by the title Potnia Theron, Mistress of the Beasts.Not be confused with The Beastmaster
Circe and Odysseus. Allessandro Allori, 1560 - image from Miller’s site
While she has her darker side (she does change her nymph love-rival Scylla into a beast of epic proportions, which gets her sent to her room, or in this case, island, and there is that pig thing again) she is also a welcoming hostess on her isle of exile, Aiaia. (Which sounds to me like the palindromic beginning of a lament, Aiaiaiaiaiaiaia, which might feel a bit more familiar with a minor transformation, to oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy). I mean, she runs a pretty nifty BnB, with free-roaming wild animals, of both the barnyard and terrifying sort, a steady flow of wayward nymphs sent there by desperate parents in hopes that Circe might transform them into less troublesome progeny, a table with a seemingly bottomless supply of food and drink. And she is more than willing to offer special services to world-class mortals, among others. I mean, after that little misunderstanding with Odysseus about his men, (Pigs? What pigs? What could you possibly mean? Oh, you mean those pigs. Oopsy. How careless of me.) she not only invites everyone to stay for a prolonged vacay, but shacks up with the peripatetic one, offers him instructions on reaching the underworld, suggests ways to get past Scylla and Charybdis, and probably packs bag lunches for him and his crew. She is not all bad.
Barker's 1889 Circe - image from Wikipedia
Circe struggles with the mortals-vs-immortals tension. Her mortal voice makes her less frightening to the short-lived ones, allowing her to establish actual relationships with them that a more boombox-voice-level deity might not be able to manage. Of course, it is still quite limiting that even the youngest of her mortal love interests would wither and die while she remained the same age pretty much forever. Knowing that you will see any man you love die is a definite limiting factor. Yet, she manages. She certainly recognizes what a psycho crew the immortals are, even her immediate family, and respects that mortals who gain fame do so by the sweat of their brow or extreme cunning, (even if it is to dark purpose) not their questionable godly DNA. Reinforcing this is her front row seat to the real-housewives tension between the erstwhile global rulers, the Titans, and the relatively new champions of everything there is, the Olympians. I mean, perpetual torture, thunderbolts, ongoing seditious plots, the nurturing of monsters, wholesale slaughter of mortals? She knows a thing or two, because she’s seen a thing or two.
My thoughts about [Circe as caregiver] really start with the gods, who in Greek myth are horrendous creatures. Selfish, totally invested only in their own desires, and unable to really care for anyone but themselves. Circe has this impulse from the beginning to care for other people. She has this initial encounter with Prometheus where she comes across another god who seems to understand that and also who triggers that impulse in her. I wanted to write about what it’s like when you to want to try to be a good person, but you have absolutely no models for that. How do you construct a moral view coming from a completely immoral family? - from Bookriot interview
Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus – by John William Waterhouse – 1891 - image from Wikimedia
Of course, there is a pretty straight line between the sort of MCP hogwash Circe had to endure in the wayback and recent events that have been getting so much attention of late
“I wasn’t trying to write Circe’s story in a modern way… I was just trying to be true to her experience in the ancient world.”There are plenty of classical connections peppered throughout Circe’s tale. Jason and Medea (niece) pop by for a spell. She is summoned to assist in the birthing of the minotaur (nephew) to her seriously nasty sister. She is part of Scylla’s origin story, interacts with Prometheus (cousin), gives shit to Athena, even heads into the briny deep to take a meeting with a huge sea creature (no, not the Kraaken). Hangs with Penelope (her bf’s wife) and Telemachus (bf’s son), and spends a lot of time with Hermes. She definitely had a life, many even, particularly for someone who was ostracized to live on an island.
“It was a very eerie experience. I would put the book away and check the news. The top story was literally the same issue I had just been writing about — sexual assault, abuse, men refusing to allow women to have any power ... I was drawn to the mystery of her character — why is she turning men into pigs?” – from The Times interview
For Circe, I would say the Odyssey was my primary touch-stone in the sense that that’s where I started building the character. I take character clues directly from Homer’s text, both large and small. I mentioned her mortal-like voice. The lions. The pigs. And then when I get to the Odysseus episode in the book, I follow Homer obviously very closely… - from the BookRiot interview
"Circea", #38 in Boccaccio's c. 1365 De Claris Mulieribus, a catalogue of famous women, from a 1474 edition - image from wikipedia
In terms of sources, I used texts from all over the ancient world and a few from the more modern world as well. For Circe herself, I drew inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Vergil’s Aeneid, the lost epic Telegony (which survives only in summary) and myths of the Anatolian goddess Cybele. For other characters, I was inspired by the Iliad, of course, the tragedies (specifically the Oresteia, Medea and Philoctetes), Vergil’s Aeneid again, Tennyson’s Ulysses and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Alert readers may note a few small pieces of Shakespeare’s Ulysses in my Odysseus! - from Refinery29 interview
Circe – by Lorenzo Garbieri - image From Maicar Greek Mythology Link
Madeline Miller’s Circe is not a lovelorn, lonely heart desperate for connection in her isolation, but a multi-faceted character (not actually a human being, though), with inner seams of the dark and light sort, with family issues that might seem familiar in feel, if not in external content, with sins on her soul, but a desire to do good, and with a curiosity about the world. She may not have been the brightest light in the house of Helios, but she glowed with an inner strength, a capacity for mercy, an appreciation for genius, beauty and talent, and a fondness for pork. This is the epic story of a life lived to the fullest. Circe is an explorer, a lover, a destroyer, and can be a very angry goddess. This transformative figure is our doorway to a very accessible look at the Greek tales which lie at the root of so much of our culture. If you have a decent grounding in western mythology this will offer a delightful refresher. If you do not, it can offer a delightful introduction, and will no doubt spark a desire to root about for more. Madeline Miller may not have a wand with special powers, or transmogrifying potions at her command, but she demonstrates here a power to transform mere readers into fans. Circe is a fabulous read! You will go hog wild for it. Can you pass the hot dogs? That’s All Folks
The Sorceress Circe , oil painting by Dosso Dossi, c. 1530; in the Borghese Gallery, RomeSCALA/Art Resource, New York – image from Britannica
Review posted – 4/27/2018
Publication date – 4/10/2018
December 2018 - Circe wins the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for favorite Fantasy novel of the year
Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages
----- BookPage – April 10, 2018 - Madeline Miller – The season of the witch - by Trisha Ping
-----Bookriot – April 19, 2018 - Writing of Gods and Mortals: A Madeline Miller Interview - by Nikki Vanry
-----The Times – April 5, 2018 - The Magazine Interview: Madeline Miller, author of this summer’s must-read novel, Circe, on seeing history through women’s eyes - by Helena de Bertodano
NY Times - April 6, 2018 - A lovely profile from the NY Times - Circe, a Vilified Witch From Classical Mythology, Gets Her Own Epic - by Alexandra Alter
My review of The Song of Achilles
The Odyssey on Gutenberg
A very nifty, brief, and entertaining summary of The Odyssey can be found on Schmoop.com.
A fitting piece of music from Studio Killers
A wonderful piece from Allan Ishac at Medium, on the Russia investigation. - Mueller Tells Staff: “This Swine Is Mine”
President Trump is ready for slaughter, according to people inside Robert Mueller’s office. (Credit: wemeantwell.com and imgur.com) – from above article
You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you.
My words are not as good as the ones in this book. Circe is a book about... finding yourself. But god, it stands out so far from just that.
Okay, to get started, I’m just going to say it: Madeline Miller is one of the best writers of our time. She has such a way with words that it is absolutely impossible not to be engaged in her storytelling.
The thing that brings this whole novel together is Circe’s character. She is a woman who has done awful, evil things, and yet remains unfailingly human. She is lonely, and harsh, and hiding herself in sarcasm much of the time. And there is not a moment in this novel in which I didn’t adore her. Madeline Miller does such an amazing job developing this character, weaving her thoughts into the narrative without manipulating you into feeling a certain way, keeping the narrative wide yet keeping it focused around Circe. Throughout this novel I developed such a deep level of admiration for both this author and this character, this character I’m sure will stay with me forever.
This novel is so interesting because at its core, it is an exploration of the voice of women in Greek mythology. Circe is a character we see nothing of in the narrative of Greek mythology, a character with seemingly evil intentions and little motivation – and all this despite showing up in several different stories. There’s something supremely excellent about seeing a character like this who is essentially a plot device be given a story. I know I have a tendency to repeat the term “narrative agency” but it beats repeating— I absolutely love giving characters who have been given no agency the agency they deserve.
I mean, everything about this book was just brilliant. I loved the myth interpretation: Penelope and Odysseus are both written perfectly, and seeing Jason basically get called an asshole while Medea stood on being young and morally grey and in love was so fantastic. And the exploration of gods vs. mortals is just brilliant:
You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain. There is nothing more foreign to them, and so nothing they ache more deeply to see.
I loved the relationships — just as a special note, the relationship between Circe and Telegonus made me want to cry. I basically loved everything.
I mean, I think you guys have gotten pretty easily why I liked this so much — a morally-grey-character-driven retelling revolving around agency is basically my entire what-I-like bio. This did all the things I like and I want to reread it daily and hourly. I very well might.
[I also want you all to know this book gave rise to my favorite update meme I have ever posted so thanks for that!!]
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buddyread with my favorite Melanie 💜
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.
Where do I even begin? This was one of the most amazing, beautiful, intricate, captivating books I have had the pleasure of reading in my entire life. I have been a bookworm since I was barely walking, and yet this book, this gorgeous retelling, has impacted me so profoundly that I genuinely do not know if I will ever be entirely the same.
It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures—flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.
As a child, I loved Greek mythology, and though I lost some of that knowledge through recent years, when I heard that this story was releasing, I knew I just had to read it. I thought it was going to be the story from Circe’s point of view, but ultimately, I expected it to revolve around Odysseus; I had no idea that I was in for such a treat, though, as he is only a small portion of the immortal Circe’s life. This isn’t a retelling, it’s an origin story, a history, a tale of centuries’ worth of loves and losses, griefs and triumphs.
The thought was this: 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.
From the very start, we see that Circe is so vastly set apart from her fellow gods and goddesses; as a nymph with the reedy voice of a mortal, she is told she is wholly useless, but it’s evident from the beginning that she is this brilliant, clever, strong woman: a force to be reckoned with in every way. I knew I would love her, but I couldn’t have predicted how fast or hard I would find myself rooting for her to succeed.
But of course I could not die. I would live on, through each scalding moment to the next. This is the grief that makes our kind choose to be stones and trees rather than flesh.
Of course, Circe’s exile on the isle of Aiaia is bound to be an unhappy story, and that’s a common thread throughout Circe: you always know something miserable or painful is on its way, but the moments in between those travesties, and the ways Circe handles the hand of cards life has dealt her, makes it so incredibly worth the ache. Perhaps the greatest thing about watching her struggle is how much relatability it lends to her character; despite being a goddess, an immortal, and a witch, Circe at her core is a spurned woman who has lived too long under the heels of spiteful, power-hungry men, and a wicked society that values beauty over strength.
But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.
Of course, Circe’s tale is not entirely a desolate one, but her joys are often her curses, as she loves mortals and sees in them the same potential that cursed Prometheus to his rock. Throughout her life, we get to see relationships come and go, and I was enthralled by how incredibly sex-positive and sure of herself she remains. Rather than selling herself away to the highest bidder, Circe’s primary focus is to never let her pursuit of pleasures and companionship win out over her need to be her own person.
“It is not fair,” I said. “I cannot bear it.”
“Those are two different things,” my grandmother said.
It was so enjoyable to watch the different characters cycle in and out of her memories, whether it was Daedalus and his loom, or Hermes and his messages and antics, or—of course—Odysseus, who we saw in a much more realistic light, as Circe portrayed an image of him that was far less heroic or noble than many of the legends would have one believe. There are even mentions of Patroclus and Achilles, and what became of them, though I was pleased to find that prior knowledge of The Song of Achilles was not at all necessary to fully enjoy this book.
I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.
Of all the things Madeline’s writing had to offer me, though, the one that meant the most to me was wholly unexpected: the perfect, beautiful depiction of motherhood through Circe’s relationship with her son. As a mother to a wild little boy of my own, I related to so many of her thoughts and fears, but most of all, to the utter authenticity of the love she describes for him. It consumes her entirely—for better or for worse—and her need to protect him holds such ferocity that she worries it will destroy her at times. Many of the thoughts she held for him gave me chills or brought tears to my eye, and throughout it all, I just kept thinking that I had never felt like motherhood had been so perfectly described as it is in this book.
You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you.
Truly, I could gush for days, but I’m going to cut myself off here and just ask you to please, please pick up a copy of this beautiful book. I sound like a broken record, but it meant so much to me, and has earned such a warm place in my heart that I know I will reread it over and over in the coming years. Whether you are a mother, or a lover of Greek mythology, or just a bookworm looking for a story that will capture you so wholly, you’ll never want to leave its embrace—this book is flawless, utter perfection, and I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough.
All quotes come from an unfinished ARC and may not match the finished release. Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review!
Buddy read with Heather!
You can find this review and more on my blog, or you can follow me on twitter, bookstagram, or facebook!
This is a beautiful book; it is flawless and intelligent. I do not have a single criticism for this fantastic piece of writing. I loved it!
Circe chronicles the life of a lesser god. She is the daughter of the mighty God Helios, the living embodiment of the sun. She is born without any particular talents or powers. She exists in the shadows of her more developed brothers and sisters. She does not shine in such spectacular company.
However, gifts come in many different forms and those with hidden talents are overlooked and devalued. More often than not quiet people are forgotten about and there worth ill-considered in all walks of existence. Circe’s family never saw what she could become. Power is important, though sometimes having none teaches one a greater lesson: nothing is worth having unless it has been earned. As such Circe wills herself into power as she discovers her affinity for witchcraft, especially the art of transformation.
Her family banish her from their company for her use of such a lowly art, and in doing so they set her free. She finds herself in her exile. On her island home she finds a paradise not a prison. She becomes one with nature and finds company with lions and wolves. Centuries pass, ages pass, and eventually some rather important characters come her way. She meets Hermes and Athena, Icarus and his farther Daedalus, and Odysseus, a man who changes her life and causes her to make a very powerful decision that leads this book into such an excellent conclusion.
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
Circe offers a huge story, a story that spans generations and includes many Greek heroes and gods. Such is the nature of godhood, of immortality. When life goes on forever many notable people cross one’s path. And despite the huge number of famous characters here, none of it felt forced: it all slotted perfectly into Circe’s life. There are so many myths that intertwine with Circe, like the story of the Minotaur and the fall of Icarus, though despite the famous nature of many of them they don’t for a second overshadow her.
She met Prometheus when she was young and decided that her life would not be the same as the other gods: she was going to be her own woman. And this is a book about her finding the most ultimate form of freedom. I could not recommend it more highly. I really liked The Song of Achilles though this surpassed it in every way. I really hope to see more from this author in the future.
Five fantastic stars
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