Literacy 2021: Book 20: Circe

or, “Defying Odyssey,” Madeline Miller’s wicked re-interpretation of the story of literature’s first witch

Circe by Madeline Miller

An autobiography of the goddess Circe, known as the first witch in literature because of her role in The Odyssey, tracing her life from her time in the halls of the Titans, through her encounters with mortals, and the aftermath of her time with Odysseus.

Extraordinarily engaging, pulling together various “guest appearances” from Greek mythology into a compelling narrative that feels immediate, contemporary, and personal. Gives believable motivations to characters that have always seemed capricious, arbitrary, or intended to function only as allegory. The writing is so direct and accessible that I could finish an entire passage and only realize afterwards how insightful or beautifully phrased it had been. Does such a good job of making classical stories feel contemporary and relevant that I’d assumed several elements were Miller’s invention, until I found out that they were ancient. Layers its various themes throughout, instead of relying on just one or two direct metaphors: feminism, obviously, but also self-determination, agency, fame, self-awareness and self-deception, and the role of heroes. Illustrates the differences and divisions not just between men and women, but immortals and mortals, Titans and Olympians, nobility and commoners, and divine power vs craftsmanship, as a kind of intersectional examination of power and self-determination in all its various forms. Circe is brilliantly realized, coming across as wise and brave even as she’s describing her own foolishness, naivete, or lack of confidence. Some of the descriptions of the relationship between mothers and sons hit me like a punch to the gut.

I hated the ending, partly for being a bit too neatly tied up, but mostly for feeling queasily inappropriate even by the incestuous standards of Greek myth. The description of the final spell in the book undermines much of the character development that came before it: she goes back to describing plants as having innate powers that had already been revealed to be the result of her will. Slow to get started; the first few chapters do an excellent job of describing life in the court of the Titans, and it’s essential background for everything that comes afterwards, but it gives a bad impression that the story will be far more tedious than it turns out being. I wish there had been more of the clever gimmick in which Circe the storyteller interjects an observation that was unknown to Circe the protagonist at the time; it added a bit of intrigue and foreshadowing for what was to come next.

A fantastic book that is undermined a bit by its last few chapters. Not just a feminist work but a humanist one, taking pity on the beautiful, perfect, and divinely gifted while praising instead the value of hard work and self-actualization.