74 pages 2 hours read

Madeline Miller


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Published in 2018, Circe retells the story of the eponymous Greek mythological figure. Although traditionally viewed as a heartless, savagely beautiful witch who lures sailors to their deaths, the Circe of Madeline Miller’s imagining is quite different. This Circe is a multidimensional, flawed, and empathetic character struggling to find meaning and worth in her immortal life. Through Miller’s detailed and honest first-person narrative, which takes place over thousands of years, the evil witch becomes relatable.

The world seems stacked against Circe from the start. No one expected much of the dime-a-dozen nymph, named “hawk” for her golden eyes and human voice. She grows up in a cold, disinterested home. The other nymphs, especially her siblings, mock her relentlessly, never allowing her to find any semblance of belonging. When her uncle, the Titan Prometheus, is whipped before the other gods, Circe’s gentle heart is saddened where the others are maliciously fascinated. In bringing him succor, she discovers a life-changing fact: She does not have to follow in the footsteps of the other gods. Little does she know that she will go on to set herself apart from them more than anyone before.

As the years wear on, Circe meets a young mortal. Desperate for companionship, she quickly falls in love. His mortality, however, hangs over her head like a guillotine—for all she loves him, he will one day die and leave her alone again. Refusing to accept this, Circe searches for pharmaka, an herb endowed with magical properties. Using it, she transforms her would-be lover into a god, but this does not herald her happy ending as planned. Instead, he spurns her for a beautiful nymph named Scylla. In her youthful jealousy, Circe decides to get Scylla out of the way, for surely then she will marry her beloved and live happily ever after. After using the pharmaka on Scylla, Circe finds not marriage but guilt—Scylla has been transformed into a six-headed monster that feasts on mortal flesh.

When the guilt-ridden Circe confesses her sins, her power is determined to be pharmakeia—witchcraft—which goes beyond even the gods’ limits. Fearing what they cannot control, the gods decide to exile Circe on the lonely island of Aiaia for all eternity. There Circe comes into her own, becoming a powerful witch, but life is never simple, not even for a goddess with magic at her fingertips.

Over thousands of years, Circe meets many figures of legend—Daedalus, Ariadne, the Minotaur, Medea, Jason, and Odysseus. Odysseus, however, becomes not just a name, but her lover and dear friend. In Miller’s reimagining, the tale of the spiteful witch and the brilliant hero is reframed as a complicated and compassionate—yet doomed—courtship. Still, even when Odysseus leaves the island to return to his wife and child, he leaves Circe with a child and the hope that her loneliness is ending.

From her love of her child, Circe finds the strength to accomplish feats that stymied all others before her, but she also learns the true depths of fear. Her child is mortal and vulnerable, and even he will leave her alone once again when he makes his inevitable journey to the underworld. Despite this, Circe proves herself a force beyond reckoning, powerful and willful enough to successfully stand toe-to-toe with the greater gods to protect her son.

Circe follows the goddess’s extraordinary life as she matures and changes through suffering, self-recrimination, life-changing relationships, and the persistent march of time. She grows from a fearful yet compassionate nymph to an all-powerful witch. Perhaps greater than all of this, Circe eventually finds it within herself to not only challenge the gods but to leave them behind forever, to live the life she always wanted surrounded by the love she was always denied.

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