“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”
This is not a love story. No, this is something far greater that cannot be placed into one category. “Circe” by Madeline Miller is a story that is devastating, heartbreaking and breathtaking. It is a story about magic, betrayal, love, loss and self-discovery. It is about family feuds, ancient rivalries and politics. Moreover, it is about the triumph of a woman living in a man’s world. Here is a book that is rich in Greek mythology with a fierce female character that is unlike anything I have read in a while. Can we also take a moment to appreciate the cover art? I mean, I know we are told not to judge a book by it’s cover, but come on!
“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.”
From the moment Circe was born, she was cast aside as worthless nymph. Born into the house of Helios, god of the sun and a Titan, Circe was vastly different from her powerful father. She would be mocked for having a voice of a mortal and no power of her own. Feeling like an outcast amongst the gods and goddesses in her own home, Circe turns to the mortals for companionship and soon discovers her powers for witchcraft. As her powers grow, Circe finds herself being able to transform her enemies into hideous monsters. It is not long until the all-powerful Zeus feels threatened by Circe’s powers and sends her into exile on the Isle of Aiaia. It is on this island where she learns that being a goddess and an immortal will not save her from the horrors this world has to offer. Circe learns to rely on herself for protection on this desolate island by focusing on strengthening her powers. Her exile is long and we join her on her journey as she overcomes some brutal and heartbreaking encounters with visitors on her island.
I have always been a huge fan of Greek mythology. I liked that while this book focused on Circe and her life, we also got a glimpse of some other important characters. We get a brief encounter between Circe and Prometheus before he is cursed to spend an eternity bound to a rock with an eagle feasting on his poor liver. I loved this part of the story (the encounter, not the liver feasting) as it focuses on the human and gentle side of Circe as she shows some kindness towards Prometheus during his torment. This was such a small part of the book but it left a tremendous impact on Circe and it became a turning point in her life.
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
While Circe lives in solitude for many years, she did have a few relationships during her time in exile. The famous Hermes and Odysseus make an appearance in her story, but Circe handles these relationships on her own terms. These are not necessarily happy love stories, but she takes what she wants from each relationship to help her become the person she wants to be. The relationships she has with the mortals are also explored and I found these to be the more interesting relationships in the book.
“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
As we read about Circe becoming that infamous witch of Aiaia, we see her growth as she overcomes the shadows of her past. While she was treated as a worthless nymph by the gods, she soon finds herself being treated as a toy to be used by some of the monsters in the mortal world. It is not until a harrowing encounter with some of these mortals that she decides to change her narrative by using her powers. It is through her magic that she finds her freedom as she learns to protect herself and those she cares about. Circe’s other tense relationships are explored, notably between her siblings and her father. It is painful to read about how Circe yearns for love and acceptance from her family. The family dynamic is definitely strained and very complex, which leads to many confrontations. It also helps Circe find peace in her solitude and acceptance about her family and their indifference. We also see Circe struggle to understand her place in the world. She is a goddess who has been mistreated by her own kind. She is also a goddess who has a soft spot for the mortals. Reading about Circe trying to choose between these two worlds was probably one of my favorite parts of this book.
Madeline Miller is quite the storyteller. The writing is beautiful and so descriptive that it feels like I can vividly picture Aiaia in my head. It was very interesting reading about all these famous characters from Greek mythology through Circe’s perspective. If you follow Greek mythology, you will know what happens to these characters but reading it from Circe’s perspective almost feels like you are reading about these characters for the first time. Furthermore, Circe’s growth is what really kept me invested in this story as I was rooting for her from the very first page. You really get a sense of how powerful and intelligent Circe is and you are just waiting for her to realize her potential. I highly recommend this book even if you do not care for Greek mythology. Step out of your reading comfort zone and get lost in this gem.