The Pragmatic Sorcery of Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’

Circe, the exiled sorceress and minor goddess from Homer's Odyssey, responds to the myth of Odysseus by telling us her version.

Madeline Miller
Little, Brown and Company
Apr 2018

Greco-Roman mythology continues to be an endless well of inspiration for Western fiction writers, whether through modern retellings or as character archetypes. Readers are drawn to them because the mythical characters are well-known, easy to understand, and mostly universal archetypes. Yet, there’s also a tabula rasa aspect: we can read our own interpretations into them (at least with the traditional versions) both as readers and as writers. Each time one of these myths is retold, new colors, shapes, and shadows are filled in to suit tweaked plotlines, a different protagonist’s point of view, or our present times. Each writer’s version gives us, beyond fresh perspectives, a way to understand our present world through the retold narrative of an ancient one.

Thomas Jones, in his London Review of Books review of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (The Odyssey through the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, and her 12 maids) wrote:

One reason for recasting an old work is that over time, the things that readers take for granted and the things that need explaining change … The Penelopiad is written very precisely in response not to the myth of Odysseus, but to the Odyssey.

Miller’s Circe is not exactly the entire Odyssey retold through a new point of view. The novel is indeed a response to the myth of Odysseus because, through Circe, we see the hero very differently. This is definitely Circe’s story — one that has had various conflicting versions over time — with the Odyssey as the backdrop, or the side-show. Mostly, she has been portrayed throughout art as a jealous, malignant witch who transforms others into monsters or animals through her potions. Here, we get a somewhat different story of her growth into her powers as a witch or sorceress and her awareness of what they mean to her and others around her. As the plot advances, Circe’s frame of reference evolves due to her experiences with visitors from both the worlds of the gods and the mortals, her complex relationships with them, and the stories they share casually.

Our narrator is the daughter of the Titan god, Helios, and the nymph, Perse. For much of the duration of the story, she is in exile on a deserted island as part of a peace bargain between Helios (on behalf of the Titans, the old gods) and Zeus (on behalf of the Olympians, the new gods). From this vantage point, where she does not exist in either the divine world or the mortal one, she sees things differently from everyone else. Karen Armstrong has posited in A Short History of Myth (Cannon Gate, 2005) that man created myth because of an increasing awareness of his mortality and an attempt to give meaning to life by both explaining it in relation to a spiritual world (where we came from and where we were headed) and providing instruction. Here also, we find Circe recreating the myths of the Odyssey due to her appreciation for mortality, though she is a goddess. Her attempt is not so much to seek meaning or instruction but to find strength in her own voice, which is the one mortal-like aspect of her.

More than anything, these ancient epics have always been about gods versus mortals, divine versus human, spiritual versus material, fears versus desires. However, Miller’s gods and goddesses are, from Circe’s standpoint, even more petty, fearful, vain, jealous, wantonly sexual, and destructive than the mortals. They have all the flaws of mortals, except they also have superpowers and all of eternity to play with those powers, which makes them worse. They indulge in oneupmanship and revenge across generations through intricate games. Other than Prometheus, Circe does not hold any of these gods or goddesses in high esteem or reverence.

Miller’s mortals, as Circe sees them, are not without flaws but they seem to value virtues more, perhaps due to a sense of their own limited life spans. They are also, as almost every other retelling shows, more varied, more diverse, and admirable enough that the gods and goddesses have their favorites to fight over, protect, and often fall in love with. These standouts among the mortals — the heroes — sometimes possess superpowers like the gods and goddesses, but what separates them from the latter is their mortality. This might make their heroism all the more spectacular, but Circe’s hardship-worn eyes do not take them as such. In fact, she has to force herself to be creative about giving more positive spins to the stories she tells of Odysseus, her lover, to the young Telegonus, her son, who yearns for a father figure to look up to.

The most notable aspect of Circe’s relationship with Odysseus is how her attitude toward him evolves over time — how she comes to understand him less as a celebrated hero and more as a cunning, opportunistic mortal. The many shades of difference she then draws out between Odysseus and his legitimate son, Telemachus, are also effectively presented by Miller because of how they simultaneously show Odysseus’ failings and Circe’s attraction to Telemachus.

It’s safe to say that Circe’s pantheonic hierarchy is a clear opposite of the conventional one. She values the average mortals the most, then the heroes, and lastly the gods and goddesses from whom she herself descends. This is an interesting aspect of her alienation, perhaps, but it’s also a clever way to make this epic more relevant to our present times. One might go so far as to say that Miller has aimed to also highlight the complex, cumulative ways that different forms of discrimination between different groups combine, overlap, and intersect. If only, along the way, she had attempted some new twists to the traditional male versus female dynamic.

Almost all the gods and men Circe deals with — Helios, Prometheus, Aaeetes, Glaucos, Daedalus, Hermes, Odysseus, Telegonus, Telemachus — let her down in some way or another. Perhaps Daedalus, a lover, does not do so explicitly but, in choosing not to seek her out after finally escaping Minos and in the grief of losing his son, Icarus, he shows how he did not value her as much as she did him. Odysseus, another lover, was always going to return to Penelope and Ithaca. Telegonus, the son, leaves her at the first opportunity. Telemachus is the only surprise here. It’s not a shock that they should come together in Miller’s version because of how she foreshadows it all so beautifully, but that they should plan to stay together. We do not know whether they do because the ending is left deliciously open and vague so readers might ponder on the possibilities for themselves. Prometheus is the only god who remains on a pedestal throughout for Circe and their interaction early in her existence shapes much of her own integrity.

The goddesses, women, and female monsters — Perse, Passiphae, Scylla, Medea, Athena, and Penelope —are mostly all scheming and grasping in their own ways. Circe does not hold any of them up as an ideal except maybe, toward the end, Penelope. Nor is there any noteworthy insight into how the well-established patriarchies of both the gods and mortals might have shaped and driven these female characters. A missed opportunity, perhaps, to heighten the fear versus desire angle.

The island, Aiaia, is the setting for most of the novel because it is where Circe lives out her exile. Though it’s not much of a punishment, given how she had already been marginalized by the her own family and the other gods and goddesses while still in Helios’ halls. So, in this island’s isolation and removed from the daily dramas between the gods and the mortals, Circe thinks, reflects, creates, and comes into her own. In our world, the desert island is often considered an exotic, leisure-filled escape, away from everyday hustle and bustle. But remote, paradisiacal islands are also about survival and loneliness. It’s the latter two that test mettle and form character more than anything else. This is also what happens to Circe. The exile brings out her true powers, her stronger self, and her unknown desires. That said, though the island is a character in its own right, another narrative opportunity has been missed by not fully exploring its rich, magical possibilities.

Miller’s first such retelling, The Song of Achilles, was breathtaking in how she retold the Trojan War through the voice of Patroclus, Achilles’ lover. What makes Circe different from that earlier work: we do not have the former’s soft-porn love scenes; there’s no overt anti-war sentiment; there are no great battle scenes. Instead, both Circe and Odysseus, during their relaxed pillow talks, understand and accept that war is a complicated part of existence for both gods and mortals. Miller’s writing is vivid and cinematic but not remarkably inventive in its use of language. There are a few new twists to the familiar stories but they do not lead us too far astray. What stays with us are Miller’s careful insights, related through Circe’s voice, into motivation, relationships, how we — irrespective of our position in the universe’s hierarchy — approach what we fear or desire. And, most importantly, how what we fear and desire are often the same things.

Armstrong, in the aforementioned A Short History of Myth, describes the five important attributes of a myth. She calls the fifth one a “perennial philosophy”:

Finally, all mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality, sometimes called the world of the gods, is a basic theme of mythology. It has been called the ‘perennial philosophy’ because it informed the mythology, ritual, and social organization of all societies before the advent of our scientific modernity, and continues to influence more traditional societies today. According to the perennial philosophy, everything that happens in this world, everything that we can hear and see here below has its counterpart in the divine realm, which is richer, stronger and more enduring than our own. And every earthly reality is only a pale shadow of its archetype, the original pattern, of which it is simply an imperfect copy. It is only by participating in this divine life that mortal, fragile human beings fulfill their potential. The myths gave explicit shape and form to a reality that people sensed intuitively. They told them how the gods behaved, not out of idle curiosity or because these tales were entertaining, but to enable men and women to imitate these powerful beings and experience divinity themselves.

In the end, what’s most interesting about Circe is that the recreation of the various Odyssey myths throughout is a kind of subversion of the above “perennial philosophy”. Circe, the goddess, attempts to imitate mortals and experience mortality. In Louise Glück’s poem, Circe’s Power (1996), Circe justifies the use of her powers of transformation to turn men into pigs by saying she is only revealing what is already there and how even a sorceress has to be pragmatic. So the final, radical decision — which is not among the more commonly known endings of the various versions of Circe’s story — is wholly fitting and satisfying, given her own psychological transformation.

RATING 8 / 10