Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1231
Circe is a 2018 novel by American novelist and classicist Madeline Miller. It tells the story of the daughter of the sun god Helios and a beautiful nymph, Perse. Though Circe, a minor goddess, is not considered beautiful like her mother, she possesses the rare power of witchcraft, called pharmakeia. As a mythological figure, Circe is perhaps best known from Homer's Odyssey, where she presides over an island, Aiaia, that is visited by Odysseus and his men. In the epic poem, Circe gives Odysseus's men a potion that turns them into swine, though she later reverses the spell and becomes Odysseus’s lover.
Taking this figure as her subject, Madeline Miller gives Circe a first-person voice as a narrator, allowing her to tell her own story. Circe first relates her lonely childhood. After her infancy, which passed in "a matter of hours," she was scorned by her relatives and the other gods and nymphs, in particular for her shrill voice, which she later learns is a “mortal” rather than a godly one. This backstory develops readers’ empathy for Circe while also illuminating the strange and often frightening world of the Titans and Olympian gods, who possess almost no sympathy for the neglected Circe—let alone for mere mortals. The cruelty of the gods is demonstrated early on when Prometheus, the Titan famous for bringing mortals the gift of fire, is brutally and publicly punished in Helios’s halls for his transgression. Circe is the only one who shows him compassion, and she learns from Prometheus that it was compassion for humanity that led him to defy the other gods by sharing the secret of fire. Miller thus establishes the virtue of compassion as one of the novel’s central concerns—a virtue that sets Circe, like Prometheus, apart from the other deities and aligns her more closely with mortals. Her compassion, in stark contrast to the indifferent cruelty of the other gods, emphasizes Circe's humanity rather than her divinity, an idea that will remain important throughout the novel and come full circle at its conclusion.
Prometheus’s punishment also foreshadows Circe’s own, first at the hands of her Titan father, Helios, and then at the hands of Zeus, the father of the ascendant Olympian gods. Helios’s reaction—quickly morphing from condescension to rageful violence—to Circe’s confession of having used her powers to transform Glaucos and Scylla provides final proof not only of his scorn for her, but of the gods’ sole interest in maintaining power for themselves. This interaction also exemplifies the patriarchal nature of Circe’s world: Helios initially doubts his daughter’s magical abilities and then contemptuously says that he “cannot pay a husband to take” her, evaluating her worth in terms of her marriage prospects and effectively reducing her to a “faded and broken” item of property. Indeed, Helios only accepts the truth of Circe’s powers as a pharmakis when similar powers are demonstrated by her brother Aeëtes.
For her transformation of Scylla, Circe is banished by Zeus to the desert island of Aiaia, a prison that she manages to transform, at least in part, into a home and a source of power. According to Aeëtes, pharmakeia can only be discovered on one’s own, and in her solitude, Circe develops her power not through violence or cruelty, but through careful study, experimentation, and perseverance, coming to know intimately the island’s topography and wildlife in the process. It is not power for the sake of subjugating others that Circe seeks, but knowledge of and mastery over her gifts. In this she differs both from her parents and her siblings—in particular her sister, Pasiphaë, who uses the Minotaur in order to bolster her own position and reputation as queen of Crete. When Circe sees Pasiphaë’s workroom, she realizes that although Pasiphaë may be the more powerful goddess, she, Circe, is the more skillful witch.
Circe and Pasiphaë are further contrasted through their reactions to the monsters they have created: while Circe forever regrets having turned Scylla into a monster and mourns for the mortals Scylla kills, Pasiphaë is smugly proud of the Minotaur and wreaks vengeance on Crete when he is slain. The fate of Pasiphaë’s daughter Ariadne, who is killed by Athena for “some incomprehensible slight,” further speaks to the capriciousness and cruelty of the gods. So does the death of Icarus, who, along with his mortal father, Daedalus, attempts to escape imprisonment in Pasiphaë’s palace on a pair of wax wings. While Pasiphaë used Daedalus for his talents, Circe respected and cared for him, enjoying a brief but meaningful relationship with the master craftsman before being forced to return to exile on Aiaia. Her affair with Daedalus, along with his death, emphasizes both the brief nature of mortal life and the vastness of time which Circe, as an immortal god, must endure.
In allowing Circe to narrate her own story, Madeline Miller is able not only to expand upon what most readers might know of the mythology associated with Circe (making use of her formidable knowledge as a classicist), but to retell the most famous story about the witch of Aiaia—her encounter with Odysseus—from Circe’s own perspective. In this way, the novel challenges both the patriarchal culture of ancient Greece and the very notion of a singular, definitive narrative, particularly when such narratives have historically focused overwhelmingly on the perspectives of men. Miller’s Circe turns Odysseus’s men into swine not out of malice, but in order to protect herself. Circe has learned firsthand that as a woman without a male figure at her side to signify patriarchal power on the island, she cannot trust the men who arrive at her island and demand her hospitality. Indeed, her innate compassion for mortals is, for a time, shattered after a ship’s captain rapes her in her own hall. By expanding on Circe’s story in this way, Miller both develops Circe as a complex character with her own motivations and comments on the realities of life for women in ancient Greek society—realities that, while sometimes vividly illustrated, are often merely hinted at in ancient and classical literature.
Circe’s decision to renounce her godhood and embrace mortality affirms what she has known her whole life: she is not like the majority of the other gods, with their whims and cruelties. She, like Prometheus, is set apart by her sense of compassion, and she has suffered for it. But while Prometheus’s transgression was one of generosity, Circe’s attack on Scylla was a crime of vengeance. Though most of the gods appear unbothered by the pain they inflict on others, Circe is haunted by regret and shame—both of which cause her far greater suffering than her banishment. In drinking the potion that will make her mortal, Circe accepts the essential humanity that has defined her since childhood, when the other gods derided her “mortal voice.” When Circe embraces mortality, it is with the understanding that though she will experience fear, pain, and eventually death, she will also know joy and wonder. Immortality, Miller suggests, is sterile and dead because it remains disconnected from everything that gives life meaning: love, relationships, changes, and risks. Ultimately, only by embracing the essential uncertainty and brevity of mortal life can Circe finally come alive.