Book review: Madeline Miller’s Circe

Circe is a novel which delves into the life of the daughter of Helios, who is ostracised by society for her magic. It is a well known fact that Greek mythology-inspired fiction is a popular choice for many readers, but despite the current demand for adaptations of Greek myths and legends, I had never been drawn to such stories before. As a self-proclaimed history enthusiast, I can never resist a novel with some juicy historical content. Mythology, while not being strictly factual, is an invaluable mine of inspiration for many books. For some reason though, the area had yet to entice me.

This all changed once I immersed myself in the captivating chronicles of Circe. Madeline Miller creates a narrative for a character long disregarded, and the voice she is given speaks volumes.

From birth, Circe was an outcast. Being dismissed as an average nymph, her fate had been written for her; she was destined to marry a mortal and live an uneventful life. It isn’t until Circe begins to hear of mortals and their pain that she decides to take control of her own fate. This “foolish love of mortals” becomes an integral part of Circe’s story. Her determination to discover more about them, and the subsequent human entanglements she experiences, shape her unique tale. Miller had fashioned a goddess who not only creates her own path, but regains control of the narrative used to retell it.

Sexism in literary discourse can be identified within many genres, but mythology has always been a male-dominated sphere recital. Circe’s depiction in the Odyssey is one of an evil witch who begs for Odysseus’ mercy once faced with his wrath. However, in Circe, after agreeing not to harm Odesseus using her powers, she ponders this popular portrayal, not surprised that over time society has chosen to portray her as weak and powerless. Her own self-awareness highlights Miller’s intent once more: to show the true Circe and demonstrate she is not a woman to be underestimated.

Miller focuses on remodeling Circe from a two-dimensional pawn in the complex games of the gods into her own entity. She faces the task of protecting those she loves, while learning important life lessons about trust that develop her character into one of strength and power.

What struck me as most intriguing was the feminism implicit within the novel. Despite the clear message of female empowerment that can be associated with the novel, much of this is covert. The way in which Miller recrafted familiar mythology from such a perspective allows the reader to bridge the gaps that were left by Homer, and in this way the explicit is brought to life. The result is clear; we can label this a long-needed feminist rendition of classic literature.

Miller expressed her resolve in “pushing back against the material, stripping out Odysseus’ voice, and giving Circe the chance to speak instead”. Through the progression of the novel, we witness this goddess’ evolution. She transforms from a timid female, pushed onto the outskirts of a society full of power and might, into a figure of autonomy and confidence with her own might to be reckoned with.

The presentation of Circe as a strange, powerless, individual dissipates during this self-discovery. Miller uses her character as a crucial representation of female strength, and I found this growth extremely inspiring while following her journey. Rightfully called an empowering and feminist tale, the important lessons that Circe learns on her journey allow her to grow, and make for a memorable depiction of narrative agency. Miller’s work serves as a catalyst for the reclaiming of female voices across literature, a vital and much needed step in the right direction.

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