It should probably be no surprise, especially when taking my obsession with superheroes into account, but I used to be a huge fan of mythology. When I was a kid I was given a book that retold most of the prominent Greek myths around the same time that Disney’s Hercules was getting ready to be released, and I was instantly hooked. These stories of gods, monsters, and heroes instantly enthralled me, culminating when I came across Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which is basically just a book full of Wikipedia descriptions of myths, and I fully threw myself into these worlds. But, over the ensuing decades, my fascination with mythology kind of faded away. I suppose I replaced my desire for heroic fiction with irradiated spandex-clad heroes and villains, but whatever the reason I haven’t really had a reason to dive back into the world of myth. There were occasional moments of resurgence, like when I was obsessed with the God of War and Age of Mythology games in high school, but for the most part I’ve let that bit of my atrophy off. There was a time I could rattle off a staggering amount of information about an ancient mythology, but that time has mostly passed. I’ve never quite gotten over my fascination with myth, and mythic storytelling in general, but the actual legends that spurred on this obsession have dwindled in my life. So, you can imagine my delight when I heard that there was a pretty beloved novel released this year that took place in the world of Greek mythology, picking a seemingly obscure character and telling some legends from her perspective. I of course knew of Circe, but almost exclusively from her role in the Odyssey, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel, other than some excitement at reliving my old mythology dorkiness. I didn’t expect to come away with what very well may have been my favorite book of the year.
Circe, as you probably could guess, is the story of the goddess Circe. It begins with her birth, and follows her exploits over the course of more than a thousand years as she winds her way though the world of mythology, coming across a shocking amount of heroic figures, and playing a small part in several grand stories. And, very little of it is completely invented for the novel. Because Circe is a surprisingly consistent figure in the world of Greek mythology. She’s the daughter of a nymph named Perse and the titan Helios, and spent the first few centuries of her life a forgotten and abused figure. She had no real godlike powers, other than a strange inclination to the mysterious powers of plants, a form of witchcraft that is widely derided by her divine peers. And, after finding a way to turn a mortal she was fascinated with into a god using her powers, she becomes more used to her powers, and ends up using them for spite. She turns a rival nymph named Scylla into a six-headed monster, and is exposed for the witch she is. The Gods, who have been in a bit of a Cold War with the Titans, fear Circe’s power, and they come to an agreement where Circe will be banished to an island to live out her eternity in solitude.
Circe is then sent to the island of Aeaea, where she begins a lonely life, honing her skills as a witch and randomly encountering a slew of mythological figures. She frequently deals with visits from Hermes, who mainly arrives to stir up shit. She travels to the city of Crete to help her sister give birth to the Minotaur, having a brief affair with the famous inventor Daedalus. She meets with her niece Madea who is fleeing across the sea with her lover Jason after having stolen the Golden Fleece from Circe’s own brother. But, her lives changes forever when she meets a Greek hero named Odysseus, who lands on her island with his starving compatriots. Circe is immediately fascinated with Odysseus, the most interesting mortal she’s ever come across, and she ends up falling in love with him, convincing him to spend almost an entire year on the island with her. She helps him along in his quest home to his wife and son, and in the process manages to get pregnant with a child. After Odysseus leaves the island to complete his journey, she gives birth to a baby named Telegonus, who is then immediately threatened by the goddess Athena. Circe spends the next sixteen years keeping Telegonus safe, using her magic and wiles to keep the gods off of her island, until Telegonus reaches an age that he wants to go find his father. Which doesn’t go well. Telegonus ends up accidentally killing his father, and in the process bring his half-brother Telemachus and his mother Penelope back to Aeaea. Circe then falls in love with Telemachus, and they end up spending their life together, travelling the world while Penelope becomes a witch and Telegonus goes off to form a civilization. The novel then concludes with Circe finding a special spell that will turn her into a mortal, letting her life a true life.
This book was fascinating, and it’s really all I’ve been able to think about since I began reading it. The story is a tad rambling at times, just telling the life of Circe in a sort of chronological order, but it’s so beautifully and engagingly written that it just sweeps you up and carries you through itself. The novel is achingly sincere, and it’s so clear that author Madeline Miller just loves this world so incredibly much. I had considered myself a fan of mythology, but I never realized what a footprint that Circe had in these stories. Every time another mythological figure popped up I found myself researching these myths, and finding out that it’s all accurate. She was the Forest Gump of Greek myth, showing up in an insane amount of stories, and playing a major role in so many classic stories. Yeah, her role in the Odyssey is the most important of her stories, but it was such a delight to revisit so many of these stories that I hadn’t read in quite a while, becoming enthralled in them once more. The books is full of the heroes, gods, and monsters that I loved when I was a child, while accomplishing something that I’ve never seen done this well before.
It examines the humanity of the divine. I’ve always been fascinated with the way that the humans of the past saw how fickle and random life on Earth seemed to be, and ascribed that chaos to the petulant emotions of gods and goddesses. These weren’t omniscient and purely good beings that needed to be respected with solemn contemplation, they were violent, angry, lustful, and made very little sense. They were the worst aspects of humanity, and given incredibly powerful control over the lives of mere mortals. The stories of myth often revolve around the gods and goddesses acting in human fashion, but usually in the ways that they self-destruct. But this novel was different. Yes, Circe makes mistakes and has to pay for them, but what fascinates me about this novel is the way that she brings Circe to life, giving us a character with hopes, dreams, needs, and ultimately a lack of purpose. She was born with power, beauty, and an eternal lifespan, but she hates it. No one sees the world the way she does, and she just drifts through an entire millennia, full of all the angst, insecurity, and self-doubt that we all feel at one time or another in our lives. This isn’t a portrayal of the divine where she loves the life she was given and scoffs at the lives of the mortals around her. Instead, she’s jealous of them. She’d give up her godlike life and her vast powers to have the simple and purposeful life of a mortal. Because we all are wracked with the same self-doubt and longing for purpose, be us mortal, god, or mythic hero.
Circe was written by Madeline Miller, 2018.
Categories: Page Turners