It’s Greek for Me: ‘Circe’ Reimagines Sorceress as Heroine

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller

I got back to the gods in May. No need for concern. I was not undergoing a spiritual transformation. Instead, I had the illuminating and pleasing experience of reading Madeline Miller’s “Circe.”

The 2018 novel—its stunning cover art; its mix of classical myth, romance and imagination written in the rhythms of an epic  poem, even its convenient post-narrative glossary—reawakened my too-long-dormant fascination with Greek mythology. As a lit major in college, I studied and delighted in Homer’s epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” plays by Aeschylus,  Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, and “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.”

The author, a high school teacher who lives outside Philadelphia, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classics from Brown University. Her first novel, “The Song of Achilles,” won the Orange Prize in 2012.

“Circe” is short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (the new name for the Orange Prize) and has won awards including the Indies Choice Best Adult Fiction of the Year, The Kitschies’ Red Tentacle Award and an American Library Association Alex Award.

Miller reimagines the story of Circe, the daughter of the mighty sun god Helios and the water nymph Perse. Circe, who has played minor roles in previous literature, is mostly remembered as the sorceress who turned Odysseus’ men into swine.

“I was not surprised by the portrait of myself, the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep,” Miller’s Circe said, referring to Homer.

Here Circe is recast as a powerful and resourceful heroine who narrates her own perspective of the mortals and immortals, both good and evil, she encounters; of her expertise in witchcraft and on her personal experiences of love and motherhood. In Miller’s book, Circe interacts with many of the most familiar members of the Greek pantheon—both before and after Zeus banishes her to the deserted island Aiaia. Among them are Prometheus, her niece Medea, Daedalus and Icarus, Hermes and the monsters Scylla and Minotaur.

Miller presents Circe’s loveless childhood among the Titan divinities as well as repeated instances of sexual violation by men (mortal and immortal) as justification for Circe’s malicious actions. The author seems to acknowledge that yes, Circe turns men into pigs—but they deserve it. These scenarios seem clearer through the author’s modern feminist lens. And thus, Circe, a minor villainess of mythology, becomes a sympathetic, even heroic, character.

Also as her story progresses, Circe’s sense of empowerment intensifies—and she glories in it. “For a hundred generations, I have walked the world, drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. Then I learned I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt,” Miller writes.

Circe’s compassion is evident in her welcoming mortal and immortal visitors to her island, and especially in her distinctively maternal feelings toward her son, Telegonus. Although apparently afflicted with postpartum depression, she feels “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.”

And here’s the rub: Through the millennia of her existence, Circe outlives all the humans she loves with singular passion, thus arriving at an understanding of what it means to be mortal.