Circe Summary

Circe by Madelline Miller is a feminist retelling of the story of Circe, a goddess and a witch who plays a role in some of the most famous tales 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 meets and shapes the destinies of several famous mythological figures, including Daedelus, Medea, Odysseus, and Telemachus.

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Summary

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....

(The entire section is 1,695 words.)