Madeline Miller’s long-awaited novel, Circe, reimagines the life of the goddess Circe beginning with her childhood, to her encounter with Odysseus, and beyond.
As a child, Circe is ridiculed, bullied and teased mercilessly by her siblings for her appearance and voice, and marginalized by her parents, Helios and Perse. When the gods discover she is a witch with considerable powers of transformation, she is banished to live a solitary life in Aiaia. While on Aiaia, she hones her skills in witchcraft, transforms men into pigs, gives birth to the son of Odysseus, and feuds with Athena. When her son accidentally kills Odysseus, he returns to Aiaia with Penelope and Telemachus. The novel ends with Circe transforming herself into a mortal to live out the rest of her days with Telemachus.
There is much to admire in the novel. Since Circe lives in isolation, visitors who come to her island share the latest events and gossip, thereby providing Miller with an opportunity to weave stories from Greek mythology into the narrative. The description of Circe’s island with its plush vegetation and bewitched wild animals was vivid and colorful.
But the novel has its weaknesses. Parts of it dragged, especially the parts where Circe putters about on her island. The biggest drawback, however, lay in the portrayal of Circe. In Book X of the Odyssey, Circe is empowered, confident, at peace with herself, and “virginal” in the sense that she does not feel the need for a man to complete her. She helps restore Odysseus’ strength when he lives on her island for a year, and then she sends him off on his merry way when he tells her he has to leave. She doesn’t cling to him as Calypso tries to do. She doesn’t fall apart. She is complete in and of herself.
Miller’s Circe is, unfortunately, nothing like that. Unlike her sister, Pasiphaë, who is portrayed as strong, willful, and exciting, Circe is weak, insipid, and gullible as a child. She develops a clingy obsession with Glaucos, the fisherman; exhibits low self-esteem; allows her sister to bully her even when they are both adults; is abused, abandoned, and raped. She does gain strength during her stay in Aiaia and is fiercely protective of her son. But underneath the veneer of strength and witchcraft, she is still the same little Circe who desperately wants to love and be loved by a man. It is as if there is a void in her life that only a man can complete—whether it be Daedalus, Odysseus, her son, or Telemachus. She is uncomfortable with being an immortal and ultimately transforms herself into a mortal to live out her days with Telemachus.
It is disappointing to see the powerful Circe of the Odyssey reduced in stature, experiencing self-doubt, and lacking in self-confidence. Her growth stems from her relationships with men—whether as their lover or as a mother, and her actions stem from her desire to protect the man she loves. Uncomfortable with being an immortal and wielding the power that it affords her, she ultimately transforms herself into a mortal to live out her days with the man she now loves.
It would be refreshing to see a female role model who is strong, empowered, and one unto herself, and who has no need to relinquish strength or agency in order to love and be loved in return.
I was hoping for a wild and untamable Circe. Instead, I got the Little Mermaid.