Circe by Madelline Miller is a feminist retelling of the story of Circe, a famous witch in Greek mythology.
- Circe, the daughter of a nymph and a Titan, is a disappointment to her family, who believe her to be weak. Ignored by the divine beings around her, Circe is fascinated by mortals.
- When it is discovered that Circe is a witch, the gods exile her to an island for fear of her powers.
- While in exile, Circe discovers her true powers as a witch. Navigating love, loss, and motherhood, Circe must eventually choose between the world of the gods and the world of mortals.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1697
Circe, the second novel by Madeline Miller, was an instant New York Times bestseller when it was published in 2018. The highly anticipated follow-up to The Song of Achilles, Circe is a biographical novel, following the bewitching goddess of Aiaia from her wayward childhood in Helios’s obsidian halls through her island exile, where her story intertwines with some of the best-known myths of the classical era: Daedalus, Medea, and, ultimately, Odysseus. Some 3,000 years after Homer recorded Odysseus’s heroic quest, Circe invites readers to explore Greek mythology from an entirely new perspective: that of a woman.
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When Circe is born, the immortal gods around her assume she will be powerful like her father or an enchanting sea nymph like her mother. However, they are disappointed when Circe is a strange child, born with a hawkish nose, yellow eyes, and a thin, tinny voice that doesn’t resonate like the voices of the other gods. Her father, Helios, is disappointed twice over by Circe’s birth: not only is she female, she is also not beautiful enough to attract a valuable husband.
Circe’s childhood is as dark as the underground halls of her father’s palace. Her parents favor her younger brother and sister, Perses and Pasiphaë, who torment Circe for her ugliness and unwillingness to socialize with the other gods. Circe spends her days trying to be as inoffensive as possible and her nights observing the political dynamics in Helios’s court. Helios and his brother are Titans. Overthrown by the Olympians, the Titans plot to reclaim power and glory from Zeus.
As a young goddess, Circe learns that another Titan, Prometheus, is to be punished at their home for offending Zeus. Though some Titans want to protect Prometheus and fight the Olympians, Helios explains that Prometheus merits the punishment due to his foolish love for mortals. Circe watches as a Fury tortures Prometheus and ichor, the golden blood of the gods, runs from his wounds. Defying her father and the Olympian gods, Circe brings Prometheus nectar to ease his sufferings and asks about the true nature of mortals. He says that humans are all different, and their only commonality is death. That evening, Circe cuts her palm with a dagger and finds that her blood is red, not gold like the other gods.
When Circe’s mother delivers a fourth child, Aeetes, Circe is pleased to act as his primary caregiver. They spend most of their time on an island of their own. They grow close, and Circe confesses to him that she helped Prometheus. Aeetes describes pharmaka, the powerful magic that can be drawn from herbs that have grown where immortal blood was spilt during the war between the Titans and Olympians. When Aeetes is grown, Helios gives him his own kingdom away from the island he shares with Circe. Despite her begging, Aeetes refuses to allow Circe to join him, and she is left alone.
But Circe isn’t alone for long. Glaucos, a mortal, arrives on her shores while out fishing. They picnic together, and Circe falls in love with him. She returns to her father’s palace and begs her family to make Glaucos immortal. They refuse, so Circe turns to pharmaka. She transforms him into a sea god, but he rejects Circe’s romantic advances. Instead, he prefers a beautiful yet cruel nymph named Scylla. Angered, Circe curses Scylla, and Scylla transforms into a six-headed sea monster. When Circe confesses that she used pharmaka to transform Glaucos and Scylla to Helios, he banishes her to the island of Aiaia for all of eternity.
On Aiaia, Circe passes the time preparing herbs for pharmaka. Hermes visits her often, bringing news of the outside world. Daedalus, sent by Pasiphaë, is the first mortal to visit Circe. He brings news that Pasiphaë is pregnant and requests that Circe attend the birth. To get to Crete, their ship must pass through the straits where Scylla now lives, eating at least six sailors from every vessel that passes. Horrified at the deaths she has caused, Circe transforms herself into her brother Perses, whom Scylla once loved, to delay the attack long enough for their ship to flee. Once on Crete, Pasiphaë gives birth to the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. When Daedalus brings Circe back to Aiaia, he gives her a beautiful, handcrafted loom.
The next visitor to Circe’s island is her niece, Aeetes’s daughter, Medea. Having helped her husband, Jason, steal the golden fleece from Aeetes, Medea killed her brother so she and Jason could escape. When Circe confronts Medea for choosing a mortal over her own immortal family, Medea responds by describing Aeetes’s cruelty. Circe warns Medea that she will be treated cruelly by Jason, but Medea declines Circe’s invitation to stay on Aiaia.
When a groups of haggard sailors arrives on Aiaia, Circe invites the them into her home for a meal. They are initially polite, but grow menacing when they realize she has no male relatives to protect her. The captain among them assaults her, and she transforms him and his men into pigs, doing the same to any other sailors who arrive thereafter.
This habit breaks when the captain of a group of transformed sailors comes searching for them. His name is Odysseus. He asks after his men, and Circe demurs, saying they are enjoying her garden. Odysseus entertains her with stories of Olympian gods fighting among mortals on the battlefields of Troy. When he isn’t transformed into a pig after drinking her enchanted wine, Circe realizes that Hermes must have given him an antidote to her magic. They form a truce and cement their new bond with romance.
Circe restores Odysseus’s sailors to their human forms, and they take refuge on Aiaia. Odysseus waxes philosophical about whether or not it is better to find glory on the battlefield or to live an anonymous life. Circe falls in love with Odysseus despite discovering his flaws; though he is a brilliant military tactician, he is quick tempered, moody, restless, and hesitant to trust his own sailors. Though Circe convinces Odysseus to stay on Aiaia for many months, Apollo arrives and tells Circe to give Odysseus a prophecy: He must travel to the underworld and seek the prophet Teiresias if he is to return home. Odysseus succeeds in his quest, and returns to Aiaia from the underworld. Circe gives him advice about how to safely get past Scylla, and Odysseus continues on his journey.
Alone, Circe realizes that she is pregnant. She casts a spell over her island so that no sailors will visit her shores. She daydreams about her baby, a child that will grow into a companion. Her labor is long and difficult, and she surgically removes the baby boy from her womb herself. Athena comes to Circe and tells her that Telegonus, her son, must die. Athena tries to convince Circe to kill Telegonus by promising her that more sons, with glorious legacies, will follow. Circe refuses, casting spells around the island to prevent Athena from entering.
When Telegonus grows into a man, he insists upon leaving Aiaia to meet his father in Ithaca. Circe is shocked when he returns much sooner than expected, bringing Telemachus and Penelope with him. Telegonus explains that when he arrived in Ithaca, Odysseus mistook him for a thief. Odysseus tried to take Telegonus’s spear, inadvertently grazed his own cheek with the spear’s poisonous point, and died.
Circe initially fears that Telemachus will harm them in vengeance for his father’s death. When Circe confronts Telemachus, he confesses that Odysseus was a deeply troubled man: taciturn, violent, and paranoid. Odysseus was cruel to Telemachus, insulted his bravery, and accused him of conspiring against him. Telemachus explains that he will not avenge his father’s death because Odysseus was so tormented.
Circe has a more difficult time understanding why Penelope insisted on coming to Aiaia when she could have gone to live with her relatives in Sparta. Penelope weaves at Daedalus’s loom, and Circe tells her about Medea. Circe and Penelope both admire how Medea exercised her free will to control her own destiny, and they build a friendship over a desire to do the same.
When Telemachus convinces Circe to mend her relationship with Athena, Circe allows Athena to return to Aiaia. Athena arrives, telling Telemachus that it is his destiny to travel west and found a new civilization. Telemachus refuses, citing no taste for war or building empires. Telegonus accepts the quest instead. When he arrives at the first nearby island to rally troops, he announces “I am Telegonus of Aiaia [….] son of a great hero, and a greater goddess.”
Alone on Aiaia with Penelope and Telemachus, Circe seeks an end to her exile. She summons her father, confessing to having helped Prometheus many years before. Circe tells Helios that she has powers about which he is completely unawares. When she threatens to tell Zeus about how the Titans that have been plotting to overthrow the Olympians, Helios agrees to set her free.
Circe informs Telemachus and Penelope that she plans to leave Aiaia. Penelope decides to stay, having longed for the freedom to live independently and having learned the arts of pharmaka while on Aiaia. Telemachus decides to accompany Circe on her quest to remedy the mistake she made in her youth: creating Scylla.
The two set sail, and Circe transforms six fish into rams. Within one of the rams, she places a deadly potion. When Scylla emerges from her lair, she eats the rams and the potion. Her six heads turn to stone, her tentacles detach from the rocks, and her corpse falls into the sea.
Circe and Telemachus sail to the island she shared with Aeetes. They gather flowers and fall in love, eventually returning to Aiaia to raise their family. Once home, Circe decides to take control of her own fate. She transforms herself into a mortal, choosing to live temporarily with her mortal family as opposed to eternally with the gods she has come to disdain.
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1938
Author: Madeline Miller (b. 1978)
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (New York). 400 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Time: Greek Heroic Age
Locales: Isle of Aiaia, Helios’s palace
This best-selling novel is a creative retelling of classical Greek mythology and Homer’s Odyssey, focusing on the witch Circe and her motivations after she is forced into exile after a foolish choice. In the ensuing years, Circe must come to accept herself and embrace her strengths as well as the powers hidden within.
Circe, a goddess and witch
Helios, Circe’s father, the Titan sun god
Glaucos, Circe’s first lover, originally a human
Daedalus, inventor and captive of Pasiphaë
Odysseus, prince of Ithaca, lover of Circe
Telegonas, Circe’s son by Odysseus
Telemachas, son of Odysseus and his wife, Penelope
Circe is Madeline Miller’s second novel. It follows the critically acclaimed The Song of Achilles (2011), which is a retelling of the hero tale about the prince Patroclus and hero Achilles, loosely based on Homer’s Illiad. In Circe, Miller returns to the Greek age of heroes, but this time her protagonist is Circe, the daughter of the Titan sun god Helios and the nymph Perse. Like her debut piece, Circe pulls from classical literature, particularly Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as traditional Greek mythology about the Olympians and Titans. Despite well-known roots, Miller’s original version of Circe’s tale brings the character to life through a deeper exploration of her loves, her legends, and her ultimate fate.
Similar in form to the bildungsroman story line, the novel begins with Circe’s childhood. The firstborn child of the Helios and Perse, Circe is not quite the boon that her mother expected, and within moments of meeting her new daughter, Perse says to her husband, “Come . . . Let us make a better one.” Circe is described by her father as a goddess worthy of only a human prince as a husband. The child’s self-image is further damaged by her parents’ lack of attention, the barbed insults given by her younger siblings Pasiphaë and Perses, and her invisibility to the other gods in her father’s realm. Her desire for attention leads her to break the unspoken rules of the immortal realm. Her first rebellion happens after Zeus, the leader of the competing Olympian gods, chooses Helios’s palace as the location for the beginning stage of the Titan Prometheus’ punishment. Circe brings Prometheus a drink after he has been beaten and left hanging while the rest of the gods feast. Though her compassion could be interpreted as treason and restart the old war between the Olympians and Titans, no one notices because she is of so little value. This simple act of compassion and her uncle’s response that “Not every god need be the same” foreshadow how Circe later views her place in the world.
When her favorite brother, Aeetes, also abandons her, Circe begins to escape to the shore of a deserted land where she and Aeetes played as children. There, she meets Glaucos, a young fisherman. Lonely, Circe craves his attention and falls in love with him. She makes deals to bless his catches and finds a way to turn him into a god. Despite Circe’s sacrifices for Glaucos, as a god, he rejects her. Driven by grief and jealousy, Circe changes Glaucos’ new love interest, Scylla, into a monster with multiple heads and tentacles. Though Scylla’s change is a reflection of her own inner truth, Circe later struggles with guilt over the lives lost to the monstrous creature. This act—proving her ability to manipulate the power of herbs—identifies Circe as a witch. Her siblings also share her abilities, and their collective power inspires fear in the Olympians.Courtesy of Little, Brown
While her siblings are only put under observation, Circe receives a harsher punishment. Her father declares, “She is a disgrace to our name. An ingrate to the care we have shown her. It is agreed with Zeus that for this she must be punished. She is exiled to a deserted island where she can do no more harm.” The exile ironically reveals a strength that Circe did not know she possessed, and she turns her banishment to her advantage: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands out. I stepped into those woods and my life began.”
Circe’s new life on the island of Aiaia presents a deeper characterization of an empowered woman who, for the most part, chooses her own path. She takes Hermes as a lover despite the earlier fear that she would never have company on her solitary island, and she is given a respite when her sister calls her to help deliver the Minotaur. While aiding her sister, Circe befriends and becomes lovers with the inventor Daedalus, who is Pasiphaë’s captive. Angry about the way her sister has treated Daedalus, as well as Pasiphaë’s treatment of Circe herself, the goddess learns to stand up for herself. After returning to the island, she feels both the light and weight of her exile. She knows that Aiaia is, for her, “the wildest, most giddy freedom,” while also remembering that “A golden cage is still a cage.” © Nina Subin
Circe uses her time on the island to polish her witchcraft, learning the powers of the local wildlife and using it to create potions that will add to her power. This power is illustrated most strongly when a ship full of sailors lands on her shore. She welcomes them, feeds them, and turns them into pigs after the captain of the crew rapes her. She refuses to allow others to direct her life at this point. More sailors come, and more men are turned to pigs over the following years. Only when Odysseus’s ship lands on her shore does Circe realize how lonely she has been. His confidence and seemingly straightforward personality draw her to the hero, and they soon become lovers.
Since the novel is more character driven than plot focused, it is important to note that the characterization of Circe is further developed through her relationship with Odysseus. She has known fear, grief, and frustration in the long years of her life, but she has also found joy and contentment despite her exile. Loneliness, however, has become an unwelcome companion, so when Odysseus bargains with her, she agrees. In the year that Odysseus spends with Circe, she learns of the outside world and begins to better understand mortals. She also realizes as his tenure on the island draws to a close that she is tired of being alone, and she allows herself to become pregnant with his child, a fact that she does not share with him.
Though lovers, Circe does not truly love Odysseus. She learns what love truly means when she bears a mortal child. Just before her son, Telegonus, is born, Athena appears and threatens the child’s life. Circe’s strength grows even stronger in her defiant refusal to let the Olympian take her child, and she sets a protection over the island. Telegonus is not an easy baby, but Circe bears the trials of childrearing on her own, never asking for help. When the boy reaches his teen years, she learns she must let him to make his own mistakes. She allows Telegonus to travel to Ithaca to meet his father. Tragic circumstances lead to the fulfillment of Athena’s earlier prophecy, and the boy returns home with Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and older son, after having accidentally served as a catalyst in Odysseus’s death.
The final relationship that Circe forms is with Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope. Telemachus and Circe bond over the stories about and failures of Odysseus, and Circe realizes that she is more attracted to his straightforward son than the adventure and glory seeking hero. Circe then allows her own son to become Athena’s new hero and she takes a final stand. She demands release from her exile and blackmails her father. Circe also kills Scylla, releasing herself from the guilt over the multitudes of deaths caused by the monster. Her final act in the story is paradoxically both surprising and expected as she faces the years ahead, knowing: “My divinity shines in me like the last rays of the sun before they drown in the sea. I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.” Her strength is made whole as she refuses to bow to those expectations, choosing to change her own fate in a way that no other god would choose. The character development displays a woman who is completely different from the insecure child that was introduced at the beginning of the novel.
Threaded through Circe’s story is a variety of other literary and mythological characters that readers will easily recognize. In addition to the tales of Prometheus’s punishment, Scylla’s transformation, and the Minotaur’s birth, Circe learns that her niece Ariadne has aided the hero Theseus in killing her sister’s beastly spawn. She is also visited by another niece, Medea, with her human lover Jason of the Argonauts, and Odysseus shares the tales of Helen of Troy and the Trojan Horse. These familiar tales move the plot along while aiding in the deeper development of the main character herself. Miller’s presentation of Circe can be heavy at moments, but the author is able to add a lighter tone at several points, including the passages about turning sailors into pigs.
Critical reviews of the novel provided mostly positive feedback. For instance, Publishers Weekly lauded Miller, who “paints an uncompromising portrait of a superheroine who learns to wield divine power while coming to understand what it means to be mortal.” Kirkus Reviews noted that “the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside ‘the tonic of ordinary things’” and suggested “the spell holds fast.” The plot was also extolled by many reviewers. Wilda Williams for Library Journal called it “beautifully written and absorbing,” while Sarah Johnson for Booklist found “poetic eloquence . . . and fine dramatic pacing.” Jane Henriksen Baird, a reviewer for School Library Journal, commented that “Miller deftly weaves episodes of war, treachery, monsters, gods, demigods, heroes, and mortals,” calling the book an “absorbing and atmospheric read.” The few negative comments suggest a tendency toward melodrama at points throughout the novel and a specific line that “seems jarringly modern,” as mentioned by Kirkus Reviews. Regardless, Circe reached number one on the New York Times Best Sellers: Hardcover Fiction list.
- Baird, Jane Henriksen. Review of Circe, by Madeline Miller. School Library Journal, Apr. 2018, www.slj.com/?detailStory=circe-madeline-miller-slj-review. Accessed 25 July 2018.
- Review of Circe, by Madeline Miller. Kirkus Reviews, 1 Feb. 2018. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=127646593&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 25 July 2018.
- Review of Circe, by Madeline Miller. Publishers Weekly, 5 Feb. 2018. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=127810205&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 25 July 2018.
- Johnson, Sarah. Review of Circe, by Madeline Miller. Booklist, 15 Feb. 2018. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=128157207&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 25 July 2018.
- Williams, Wilda. Review of Circe, by Madeline Miller. Library Journal, 15 Feb. 2018, p. 56. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=127946543&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 25 July 2018.
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