In Madeline Miller’s telling, Circe is a dynamic character who undergoes numerous changes. As a child, she is insecure because her father, Helios the sun god, does not appreciate her. He deems her neither beautiful nor talented enough to be a goddess. Although she cannot reach the heights of the sun, her personality as well as her looks relate to her name, which is derived from “hawk,” in that she soars high through the sky. She also shows hawk-like characteristics of being a predator. Her exceptionalism and independence are contrasted to the more conformist behaviors of her sister, Pasiphaë. Circe demonstrates that she can take initiative and has determination by learning plant-based healing, or pharmaka. She elaborates these skills further into the ability to make powerful magic.
Circle is often compassionate, but her sympathies for humans lead her into dangerous territory. By taking Prometheus’s side, she shows defiance toward her father. But when she falls in love with a mortal, Glaucos, she misuses her powers to make him immortal. Rather than reciprocate her affections, he falls in love with Scylla. Corrupted by jealousy, Circle turns the girl into a sea-monster.
Abusing her magic brings retribution from the higher powers who fear her. After she is banished to live alone on the island of Aiaia, Circe lives through travails, as she suffers at the hands of mortal men, such as the sailors whose captain rapes her. She explores the dark side of her powers in enacting revenge on them, turning them into swine. But her tender feelings toward mortals return through her interactions with Odysseus, and their union yields a son. Becoming more self-reflective, Circe abjures her powers and decides to make her home among mortals.