Book Review: Circe, Madeline Miller


Greek myths and legends have been a source of inspiration for writers and creators for thousands of years. They are some of the most well-known stories, telling of adventure, moral lessons, all-consuming love, petty vengeance, and everything that makes humans so human. And it’s all performed on the stage of the Gods, taking place in a world where magic overlaps with mortal lives.

The Greek tales may be some of the longest, most thorough fictions we have. Take, for example, The Odyssey or The Iliad, first written down by Homer but likely crafted by many poets over an extended period. Greek stories have a habit of being woven into one another, one brilliant, brutal tapestry telling the history of their heroes.

In Circe, Madeline Miller chooses to take that tapestry and explore not the depiction of masculinity that so often dominates modern retellings, but the patient hands that could craft such a tapestry.

The women of the Greek world (the fictional one, at least) were patient beyond belief. From Penelope to Clytemnestra, the women we know from these histories are waiters; they bide their time and act carefully.

Perhaps none more so than Circe. Part-god, part-witch, all woman.

Before picking up this book, the name was on the edge of my periphery, known to belong to some seer or prophetess in the world of the Greeks but never more than a passing comment in most stories I’d read. With a cast so large, it is unsurprising that many of the characters in these myths get lost somewhere along the way, summarised as a one-dimensional character and defined by a single action.

For Circe, that action was turning Odysseus’ men into pigs.

Maybe now you know who I’m on about, why that bell was ringing in your head.

But Circe has a story before the pigs, and after them too. And it’s on the same grand scale as every other hero you’ve heard about. Miller’s research into this period – stemming from qualifications in Latin and Ancient Greek – is evident in the careful way she crafts the story of Circe, weaving it into the most famous tales without ever being distracted by them. The story of Troy, of Daedalus, of Odysseus, are all a backdrop for the story of Circe. She is a woman, alone on her island, trying to understand her feelings, her trauma. Trying to survive a world that would crush her.

Apart from being beautifully written, Circe brings to mind what is at the heart of every Greek hero’s tale: a lesson. Greek tales are inherently didactic. Whilst Circe’s life may not be boiled down to a trite, one-line lesson, as a character she embodies the need to learn from the past, to continually self-examine and improve yourself. Circe, however, is not a moralistic book; it is a gentle work of fiction that takes you by the hand and says “look, this is the life this woman lived and this is how she grew”.

The Greeks were nothing if not good storytellers, and Circe is evidence that they still have so many stories – stories of women – waiting to be told.