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...
(The entire section contains 1231 words.)
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