Circe review: Myths retold

Circe review: Myths retold

In a retelling of Greek myths, Circe by Madeline Miller gives voice in a first-person narration to the Goddess Circe, daughter of the Titan Helios. It is a story that begins with her birth in the house of the sun. Right at the beginning, Circe is made to feel an outsider. For one, she is not as accomplished as her siblings Perses and Pasiphae. For another, she does not, for some reason, carry the beauty of the rest of her house. Circe is, by the reckoning of the gods, rather plain, and her voice, again by the reckoning of the gods, sounds mortal. And then there is an issue of talents – Circe does not seem to have any. Constant rejection and scorn make her timid and afraid, at least during those early years.

Her siblings, haughty and luminous, openly mock her. Her father, it seems, does not take much notice of her, and he does not, at the same time, seem to like her. Circe’s mother, the naiad Perse, views her with scorn.

And to add to her woes, Circe is taken in by the mortal Glaucos, feels deeply for him because he talks to her as an equal, and turns him into a god. It is an impulsive move that reveals to her powers she did not know she had. Glaucos, once turned into a god, shifts attention to the nymph Scylla and tries to woo her. Circe, in a fit of jealousy, uses her newly found abilities to turn Scylla into a monster.

That brings down the wrath of Helios on her head. Circe is banished to the lonely island of Aiaia. On Aiaia, lush and green and full of strange herbs, Circe develops the one ability she knows is her strength – witchcraft. In the process, she also discovers independence, mortals, the Olympian gods, and Odysseus.

The prose in Circe is fluid and layered with classical allusions reminiscent of ancient Greek texts. Similes and metaphors are used to bring to life the setting of the story. Some of the allusions are strange, but they are beautifully interlaced within the body of the narrative. Dialogue is smooth, and slightly archaic, and not in the least stilted. Descriptions are poetic.

The characterisation is strong, right from the distant Helios who burns with anger at the slightest provocation, to the mischievous (or malicious) Hermes. Circe’s brother Aeetes, whom she adored, changes from someone she knew to someone she cannot understand. Circe herself, with the story being told from her point of view, takes her time to discover herself, her strengths and weaknesses, and her abilities with witchcraft.

As an immortal, there are aspects of mortality that she does not understand, and death frightens her – but she treats mortals with compassion. Sometimes, that compassion gives way to romance. Circe’s sister Pasiphae, who makes an appearance later as a married woman, is uncommonly vicious.

For the Goddess Circe, the world is larger and stranger than she might have believed while dwelling in her father’s halls. Mortals are, she discovers, complex. Witchcraft is a skill she must develop on her own, through trial and error, and even failure. Being an immortal does not give her instant knowledge that she can use, she must hone her craft and develop it as anybody else would.

Several myths appear to be woven into the tapestry that is Circe, and the novel deals with myths both familiar and unfamiliar. These myths are put together chronologically in a readable form.

It may be argued that the gods and immortal beings of Circe are a little too mortal. That the gods have mortal characteristics cannot be disputed. However, Circe does humanise them much beyond that. The story is peppered with Circe’s observations on gender disparity (to put it bluntly) and, oddly, it makes its protagonist seem…whiny. Which is strange, given the sheer scale of the doings of the gods and the power they possess. Given their petty, vengeful natures as is portrayed in the novel, it is a wonder that they keep the world together at all.

Circe’s world is dark and, unfortunately, even savage, where the gods are capricious, malevolent, and spiteful to the point of absurdity. The gods are, after all, gods — not agents of malice that would destroy the world on a whim. Even if they could. Even if they are flawed, and riddled with human-like faults, and even if they are sometimes jealous. It is a peculiar reflection of a modern belief that the ancient world may have been unsettled, disorderly and dark. Except for the rebel Circe, who fights for her rights as it were, the gods seem hell-bent on chaos and destruction. Or they are oblivious and uncaring.

Overall, Circe is undoubtedly well written and well researched, and interesting in its choice of theme.

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