I have to say right off the bat that from the time I first read The Odyssey, my favorite character was the witch goddess Circe, who turned Odysseus’ sailors into pigs, and would have (I always believed) turned Odysseus into one as well if he hadn’t cheated (e.g., gotten help from the god Hermes to protect himself). When my daughter was growing up, she and I listened to the Odds Bodkin version of The Odyssey, in which Circe cheerfully sings, “Pigs, pigs, pigs, is what you are!” as she changes the people into pigs, which was simply adorable. I was always disappointed when Odysseus moved on from Circe’s island, even though Circe does show up as a minor or supporting character in other Greek myths (for instance, she cleansed her niece, Medea, from her guilt for killing her brother as Medea and Jason fled with the Golden Fleece). So you can imagine my delight to see that Madeline Miller has a new novel, Circe, which tells the story of my favorite character from her point of view.
It’s an excellent book. Let’s just start with that. Circe comes across as a real person, a very complicated person who’s neither goddess nor mortal but somewhere in between, someone very different from the nymphs who were her mother’s kin and the titans who were her father’s, someone interested in mortals but not really able to understand them.
Do you need to know the story of the Odyssey or Greek myths in general to be able to follow this book? Not at all. Circe tells you everything you need to know in the course of the story (and there’s a very helpful index at the back of the book, explaining who’s who and how people are related to each other, because there are a lot of interrelated characters and sometimes it’s hard to keep track). However, if you DO have some knowledge of the source material, it is a bit more fun, so that when you first meet Pasiphae, Circe’s sister, your mind immediately goes to the birth of the Minotaur and that colors your thinking about her throughout. It’s a pleasure the first time you see characters with whom you’re familiar, and to see them in a new light, but trust me, you’ll get a sense of who Daedalus was and what Scylla was like just by Circe’s descriptions.
If you do know the basic stories of Greek myths, you’ll still be carried along on Miller’s plot, which tells the stories in a new way, giving you a different perspective on well-known characters and stories, without doing an injustice to the classic stories. So, for instance, the story of the punishment of Prometheus, which normally I don’t associate with Circe, comes into play here (and we meet Prometheus himself), and while we’ve all seen Scylla in The Odyssey, here we discover what Scylla was before she became this horrible monster, and who was responsible for the transformation.
Miller writes vividly: the scene where Circe witnesses the birth of the Minotaur is visceral and terrifying; Circe’s first encounter with Scylla in the latter’s new form is nerve wracking and powerful. Circe’s encounters with various gods and goddesses (not to mention various titans) make those characters more than human and at the same time recognizable to us mere mortals.
Her encounter with Odysseus is, naturally enough, the heart of the book. We understand why Circe changes men into pigs (hint: they pretty much earn it), and why she treats Odysseus’ crew that way, and Odysseus’ trick, which infuriated me and seemed unfair in the original story, is something Circe takes in stride. Unlike some versions of the story, in this version Circe doesn’t immediately bow down to Odysseus, but treats him and his men as her guests for three seasons before he leaves, and does her best to help him and them on their way back to Ithaka, not because she’s cowed by Odysseus but because she cares about him. He comes across as a complicated human being, manipulative and intelligent, charming and not necessarily trustworthy, someone you could see Circe being attracted to.
Of course there’s more to the story, and if you’ve ever wondered what happened or what might have happened to Odysseus after the end of The Odyssey, whether he was able to return to being a mere king in Ithaka after having been one of the heroes of the Trojan War, what his relationship with his wife and his son would be like after his return, Circe gives you some answers, plausible and entirely within the characters of the people in the story.
At about the three quarter mark, when once again Circe was trying to protect herself and those she cared about from the malice of the gods, I was beginning to worry that there couldn’t be a happy ending or even a satisfying ending for this book, but I’m glad to report that I was wrong. It’s an excellent read, a lively and entertaining rethinking of Greek myths, not exactly feminist (Circe wouldn’t understand the concept, so kudos to Miller for not getting anachronistic here), but with a different and refreshing viewpoint.