Circe

by Madeline Miller

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Circe Summary

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.

Summary

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Introduction

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.

Plot Summary

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.

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Chapter Summaries