Of all the world’s pantheons of gods, I remember the Greek one the best, having learned about them in school, watched them in movies and television, and continued to read them in fiction (cough Percy Jackson cough). Ah, distinctly, I remember watching the 1997 film version of The Odyssey in English class—Odysseus bending to the whim of beautiful goddesses like Calypso and Circe. Of course, that was Hollywood’s portrayal of these immortal women. Going into Madeline Miller’s Circe, I kept thinking of Bernadette Peters’ alluring beauty. Let’s just say, the Circe I pictured soon had less an air of playful malice and more mournful loneliness.
Circe is the unwanted daughter of Helios, the Titan god of the sun. Plain, shy, and lonely, she has never felt at home among other wrathful and selfish immortals. Circe soon discovers she has a remarkable gift: she can do magic. But the gods don’t like what can one day overtake them, so Zeus, the king of the gods, exiles her to a faraway island. The years come and go, and Circe meets many heroic Greek names, including that famous boast Odysseus…
It’s no secret that villains have remarkable potential for good storytelling. Except this is not a villain’s origin story, as much as a new record of what that villain was actually like. Circe is often portrayed as beautiful, but dangerous and unfeeling, just like any other Greek immortal. She is still unbelievably clever, but she is very easy to relate to. Her family is selfish and vain, and they vehemently dislike Circe for being different. Circe tries so hard to make friends and find love, but they always get taken from her. Honestly, nothing creates more sympathy than by watching a character’s only wish come true, and then immediately seeing it stolen from them.
Circe has a strong voice as well, able to tell about large chunks of time in a short space. That is, although the time she spends on a certain event is short, we feel as though we’ve seen every minute of it. Whether it’s the years spent on the island, or the many nights spent with Odysseus, the story feels very intimate, even though the page count is not that high.
But the best part is the tenderness with which Circe paints everything. She has never known love for herself, so she gives it to everything around her. But there’s always an underlying sadness to it all, because that love and friendship is hardly reciprocated. That shows tremendous strength, I think, to push through all that ridicule and negligence, and still have a soft heart.
It was truly surprising to see Circe be written this way. In some villain origin stories, you can see evil come out in many ways, but with Circe, she is not meant to be a “villain”: just a woman who tries to find love and purpose in her long life. They say that villains are heroes that were never rescued, and Circe breaks that mold. She didn’t need Odysseus to save her: she saves herself.