Through Madeline Miller’s Circe, we gain a perspective much more vivid and humanizing than any freshman-year reading of The Odyssey. Circe tells the story of the “Witch of Aiaia” from the witch’s own raw and profoundly mortal perspective. We may have previously known Circe as the temptress who turns men into pigs, but Miller expands her world to reveal the justifications and deep sadness rooted in her.
Miller’s concise and vibrant prose packs Circe’s perspective into short yet thoughtful sentences. Her unique way of framing mundane tasks makes what could have been a drawn-out tale of solitude go by in an instant. Through Circe’s eyes, we see time pass as the gods do: centuries in a single chapter. Miller’s work also spans many myths, including the terror of the Minotaur, the love and loss story of Jason and Medea, and the tragedy of Icarus and Daedalus. With such a fast pace, Miller weaves the once inaccessible world of ancient myths into a tapestry that can be enjoyed by those not previously interested in the classics.
Circe is born to the sun Titan, Helios, and the nymph, Perse—parents whom Miller portrays as power-hungry and uninterested in their daughter. She is exiled to the island, Aiaia, after she reveals to her father that she used witchcraft to transform a mortal into a god and a nymph into a monster. There, Circe hones her powers and takes lovers, including Hermes, Daedalus, and Odysseus. She becomes pregnant with Odysseus’ child and raises their son, Telegonus, after Odysseus leaves her island.
This view of Circe as a seductress is not new, but her enduring and powerful feminine sexuality even after giving birth is not something we see often from female characters. Her brutal rape by the captain of a visiting ship in Chapter 14 sours her view of humanity, and she begins to use her sexual appeal to lure men onto her island and turn them into pigs. We feel no sympathy for those hundreds of men until she begins to rebuild her trust of humans with the arrival of Odysseus and the birth of her son.
Telegonus reveals a new side of Circe, a caring and devoted mother. In Chapter 18, Circe bemoans, “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.” Her love is violent and fierce, defending her son from the likes of Athena. This reveals the deeply human nature of Circe as a mother heartbroken that she will watch her son grow old and die.
Miller breaks Odysseus’ cemented role as the ancient hero by giving him a more nuanced and less sympathetic relationship with his family and Athena. At 16, Telegonus sails to Ithaca to find his father, only to be met by hostility. Odysseus scratches himself on Telegonus’ poison spear and dies. Grieving Telegonus takes Odysseus’ wife and son, Penelope and Telemachus, back to Aiaia with him. Circe is at first suspicious but grows to form a deep bond with Telemachus and learns of the bitter and war-torn man that Odysseus became back in Ithaca.
In Chapter 26, Telemachus reveals to Circe that Odysseus said “he had never met a god who enjoyed their divinity less [than Circe].” Miller’s work shows the true tragedy of immortality and Circe’s yearning to be mortal, however fragile and brief our lives may be.