Circe • 2018 • Mythological Fiction novel by Madeline Miller

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m currently on vacation, enjoying the Mediterranean beach in Crete. Looking at my tbr, it was perfectly clear to me that I need to read the two Miller books, as they are located in Greece. Alas, that sweet choice: which one first? My daughter just read Circe and she told me that a tiny part of it is set in Crete. I’ve been to the relevant places: 

  • The Dictaean Cave where Zeus has been born and hidden from his murderous father Kronos
  • Hiked the nearby mountains where Circe collected her famous witch herbs
  • Visited the remains of Knossos, the center of Minoan civilisation, where Circe helped her sister birthing the famous Minotaurus

My love for Greece mythology doesn’t end there, having recently “traveled” ancient Greece in the video game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Consider me prepared to dive into this novel! Now follow me into the world of ancient Greece starting with this beautiful sunset:

image_c21b8e20-64bc-489f-bcf6-4d7cbe0fab65.img_4946

It didn’t start well for Circe in the palace of her father, the sun god Helios. Her other siblings bullied and abused her. A crime led to her banishment to the mythological island Aiaia. In thousands of years, she learned her witchcraft based on herbs and words of powers. 
One day, famous craftsman Daedalus entered her realm and bade her to help her sister birthing a child on the island of Crete. On the way there, they had to pass the lethal monster Skylla, who was originally a beautiful nymph, turned to a monster by Circe herself. Circe’s sister’s child of course would be the immensely wild Minotaur. Circe helped Daedalus to contain this monster.

These are only two of many mythological connections linked in the novel. We also see a lot of business with Greece gods, old and new, as well as many occasions of mythological narrations. The Aeneas where Medea helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece is only one of them. 
But why are they woven into Circe’s narration? Doesn’t it sound like an arbitrary retelling just for the sake of it? Before this book, I considered Circe as only ne of many occurrences in the Odyssey, memorable for her magic turning men to pigs. Nice enough, but worthy a whole book?

That’s where I was most astonished by this novel: all those mythological tales are interconnected and Circe is indeed a central chain lock link. In the case of the Aeneas, it’s Circe’s brother Aeetes of Colchis who owned the Fleece. Similarly with the Minotaur, whose mother was Pasiphaë, sister of Circe. 

Those connections aren’t commonly known, and it’s one of the remarkable features of this novel to retell them in a wonderfully fluent storyline. I’m immensely entertained and thankful for this alone, counting numerous markups, notes, and Wikipedia journeys during my read.

The true core of the book is of course Circe’s dealing with Odysseus and his crew. He stayed for a year at her island, and we get a new look at the trickster hero. That was around the 50% mark, when I wondered that Miller had shot all the mythological ammunition. What would come in the rest of the novel?

That’s when the book started dragging a bit: Circe gave birth to a son, Telegonus, son of Odysseus. I didn’t know about that one at all, but learned that he has his own Epos, the Telegony, involving Odysseus’ wife Penelope, his half-brother Telemachus, Goddess Athena, and the later fate of Odysseus himself. Enough indeed to fill half a book!

I highly enjoyed reading the book, the only negative thing I can bring forth is the slack in tension around halfway through. A matter of taste is the sometimes epistolary style when some parts are “told not shown”. I know that many people take a radical stance against that literary style, but I really liked it as a diverging style or a palate cleansing. 

I also wondered about the add-on value of the book. Wouldn’t it be better to just study the original sources, considering that they already contain all the connections and wisdom? There isn’t very much that the author adds. Yes, there’s a bit of PTSD discussion and feminism, but all that can be found in the original stories. Miller really stayed true to the source. And that’s the value, here: retell a great story in an accessible voice, motivating a modern audience! 

Highly recommended for readers of mythological fiction, alternate history, and fantasy!

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22 Responses to Circe • 2018 • Mythological Fiction novel by Madeline Miller

  1. pdtillman says:

    Alas, it didn’t work for me.
    But your vacation sounds wonderful! More photos, please….
    OK, here’s a Vancean one from a few nights ago
    [https://www.flickr.com/photos/29050464@N06/51522734700/in/dateposted-public/lightbox/]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. piotrek says:

    I remember reading good things about “Circe”, and I almost acquired it, but then I came upon Atwood’s “Penelopiad”, and decided to go for this one… “Penelopiad” is a great modern, feminist retelling of the original Greek story, but I’m definitely going to also read “Circe” one day 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. pdtillman says:

    Re: Atwood: I’ve generally preferred her non-fiction and essays to her fiction. But, I do like mythic retellings…..
    Andreas, did you try the 2019 anthol of orig shorts of those? https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3466964307
    Some spectacular stuff there. The Arkady Martine!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes! This one was wonderful. I think a love of Greek mythology definitely helped me too, and I liked that the book was focused on an unexpected figure.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ola G says:

    I didn’t like it, especially for its portrayal of Odysseus, and generally skewed interpretation of myths – my own interpretation goes in different directions 😉 But glad you enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      If I remember my Homer correctly, there is nothing in it that forbids such an interpretation, does it? But I rather remember him as a hero than a PTSD‘ed brutal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ola G says:

        We could get into a long discussion whether such retelling is even needed; there are quite a few fearsomely femist characters in Greek mythology, and nobody needs to make up another one, and devote whiny pages on end to single motherhood. But that’s an aside, really 😉 What bugs me about this version is indeed the purported innate brutality and thoughtless egotism of Odysseus. Oh, he was crafty, he was manipulative, he did a lot for gain. Still, I re-read my Homer recently and it seems to me that Miller got so hung up on Odysseus’s vices that she couldn’t see past them into his not so paltry virtues. I’d even argue that her portrayal of PTSD is more focused on post-partum trauma than on the post-war kind that plagues Odysseus and his crew. Miller clearly has no idea nor interest in pursuing this interpretation, so instead of trying to understand Odysseus she turns him into something despicable.
        I could go on and on, so maybe I should stop 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Andreas says:

          I actually had that discussion with my daughter, and I tried to cover a little bit of that in the review. I guess, I personally didn’t NEED it, but I really liked it. Yes, there are others like Medea (who’s covered elsewhere), who could be featured. But Circe is the one we‘ve gotten. As I learned from my DNFed Song of Achilles, „whiny“ is Miller‘s voice spread thick over her narration.
          Another thing I didn’t like was Athena‘s role. It’s popular these days to emphasize the Greek gods fallacies, especially of Athena. Why can’t she be a positive God, one the people adored and prayed to? Why does she have to be the bad lady everywhere?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ola G says:

            I would’ve been fine with Circe if her sudden elevation in Miller’s perspective didn’t come at the cost of belittling others. Athena and Odysseus are only two examples, but it seems everyone got the short shrift in Miller’s narration, even Prometheus who needed help from the protagonist – otherwise, Circe could not be depicted as so “special.” 😛

            Liked by 1 person

            • Andreas says:

              I interpreted the encounter with Prometheus as a positive driver for Circe rather than him needing her help at all.
              Many other belittlings I can understand, because she was victim of her siblings‘ mobbing attacks.
              Other than that, I agree that she got just too much of it.

              Liked by 1 person

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