Anyone with an interest in Greek mythology is bound to have come across the enchantress Circe.
Although she is one of the many beings the wily Greek hero and Trojan war veteran Odysseus encounters on his troubled multiyear voyage home, she is particularly memorable for her penchant for turning men into pigs.
In the abridged version of Homer’s Odyssey I read when I was younger, Circe was cast as an evil witch who enjoyed transforming the poor hapless men who dared to land on her island.
Only clever Odysseus, with a bit of help from the gods Athena and Hermes, is able to outwit her and gain her help (and her bed).
Like her debut novel The Song Of Achilles (2011), Madeline Miller takes what is known about Circe and reimagines her life, expanding it to her childhood in the halls of Helios, her Titan father and sun god, and retelling what is in the Greek myths from her point of view.
Circe may be the eldest child of Helios and water nymph Perse, but she is the most despised and bullied of their four children.
The one bright spot in her young life is her encounter with the Titan Prometheus, brought to her father’s halls to be whipped as part of his punishment for giving mortals fire. (For those familiar with Prometheus’ story, this is before he was tied to the rock to endure the eternal punishment of having his liver eaten every day.)
For the first time in her life, the timid and downtrodden Circe displays some courage and feeds Prometheus some nectar. In exchange, she discovers that not all gods are the same and realises that she is an individual in herself.
When her youngest beloved sibling Aeetes leaves their home without so much as a glance behind for her, the grief-stricken Circe travels to an isolated beach where they used to play.
There she meets the mortal fishermen Glaucus, with whom she eventually falls in love.
Knowing that her father would never consent to her marrying a lowly mortal, she attempts to locate the rare flowers known as pharmaka, grown from the spilt blood of gods and used by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, to poison his father, the Titan Kronos.
Using those flowers, she transforms Glaucus into a god, believing in their purported magical power. But when the now-immortal sea god Glaucus seems intent on marrying the sea nymph Scylla, Circe turns again to the pharmaka. The resulting transformation of Scylla – into the monster of the same name featured in Odyssey – confirms that, unbeknownst to her, Circe has the ability to create spells with herbs and words.
Confession of her deeds results in her exile to the deserted island of Aiaia.
However, she still has many encounters, including with Daedalus, father of Icarus; the Minotaur, whom her sister Pasiphae gives birth to; Jason and her niece Medea, who stole the golden fleece; and of course, Odysseus and his crew, and eventually, his wife Penelope and oldest son Telemachus.
Those familiar with the mortal heroes of Greek mythology will certainly meet plenty of familiar characters in this book.
While not all of them have substantial encounters with Circe, it is interesting to fill in a bit more of their story, as Miller imagines it.
Circe herself is an interesting character to follow: unlike the original myths where she is portrayed as a strong, self-assured but wicked enchantress, here she is timid and self-doubting despite her magic, although she does grow more into herself as the story progresses.
She still does turn men into pigs, though, but there’s a very #MeToo reason for it.
Overall, this is an interesting exploration of a minor character from the Greek myths.
Those who enjoy those myths should like this story, while others might appreciate the tale of how an insecure girl comes into her own in the mythic setting of ancient Greece, complete with gods, magic and adventurous men.
Author: Madeline Miller
Publisher: Bloomsbury, fantasy fiction