C.S. Lewis, an ardent devotee of Greek mythology, once wrote, “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity … A myth is a lie that conveys a truth.” Like so many others, I have always been captivated by the enticing allure inherent to Greek mythology and found in Madeline Miller’s novel Circe a magic that was blissfully spellbinding.
In this brilliant retelling of the myth of Circe, a witch best known from The Odyssey for turning all of Odysseus’ men into pigs, Miller weaves together many of the best-known Greek myths in a seamless narrative that incredibly stays within the structure of the original tales. Examples include Circe’s creation of the six-headed monster, Scylla, who famously threatens the Argonauts in Jason’s quest for the golden fleece; Jason and Medea (Circe’s niece) as they flee Circe’s brother with his stolen fleece; the deadly Minotaur, birthed by Circe’s sister; and the near-divinely inventive Daedalus and his ill-fated son, Icarus — just to name a few.
Circe is a water nymph, the divine daughter of the sun god and Titan, Helios. When her powers of sorcery are discovered, she is exiled onto the island of Aeaea where she cannot threaten the Olympians with her power. There she sharpens her skill and knowledge in witchcraft and tames the island’s wild animals for her companions. Unlike most of her fellow gods, she displays a natural affinity for mortals, largely influenced by an early encounter with Prometheus, the Titan credited with crossing Zeus by giving fire to humanity. Her sympathy for the first group of men who visit her island exposes her to a violent calamity, resulting in her henceforth turning all sailors who traverse Aeaea into pigs.
Odysseus is spared only because, as he is leaving his ship to follow his men to her palace, Hermes appears to him with the warning not to drink her wine. Odysseus charms Circe instead, and, after his men are restored to human flesh, the two become lovers for a year before he sets sail again for Ithaca. Circe’s true test then begins as she struggles against the powers of Olympus for the sake of the mortal she comes to love most.
Told from Circe’s perspective, this compelling novel is somehow freshly modern without diverging from the classical origins of the myth’s framework. It explores a woman’s struggle for significance, independence, and love, as well as the complexities of longing for home — a fundamental theme in The Odyssey — juxtaposed with home’s often flawed reality. Circe’s character is surprisingly relatable, and her unusual life narrative and choices are utterly captivating, offering an unexpected treat for any enthusiast of mythology or fantasy.