Picture this, a boat washes ashore on the beautiful island of Aiaia, carrying Odysseus after his long quest fighting in Troy. Silver wolves and golden lions drape themselves over the threshold, and striking witch-sorceress Circe emerges over the rocks. The story of the Odyssey begins with depicting Circe as vivid, powerful and unique, a cunning witch who transforms Odysseus’s men to pigs, but after Odysseus draws his sword, Circe drops to her knees. She begs, pleads, and offers to take him to bed, rendering her character out of control, despite her otherworldly powers, completely at the mercy of man. Madeline Miller decided to change that. She noticed this pattern of behaviour in the majority of sexist portrayals of women in ancient mythology, and decided to change the course of Circe’s story, paving the way for powerful representation of women across literature.
Earlier this year, our team had the pleasure of attending a number of events with the Women’s Prize for Fiction, where we were first introduced to Circe, and the new found focus on giving voices to women in ancient Greek mythology. Alongside Circe for the prize was the wonderful Silence of the Girls, both equally wonderful portrayals of female narratives that have formerly been overlooked or undermined in these male-centric stories. We were fascinated to learn of Miller’s academic Classicist background and her life-long work dedicated to reclaiming these women’s stories. She specialised in Homer and Virgil in her studies, very aware that women writers and academics are often pigeon-holed into the “softer” narratives of study due to their sex. What has come of years of study and research is Circe, a startling and enchanting novel unravelling the story of a banished goddess standing bravely alone; crafting occult, taming beasts, and engaging with mortals.
Reclaiming the authentic story
One of the primary reasons we chose Circe as the book to compliment this month’s chosen theme was the way in which it reclaims Circe’s true story, that is mostly sidelined in favour for Odysseus’ ‘heroic’ story. The narrative Miller creates for Circe is whole. We see her growing up in Oceanus with her Titan father Helios (God of Sun), and her nymph mother Perse, and her three siblings Aeetes, Pasiphae and Perses. We follow Circe to her exile on the island of Aiaia, and we oversee her explorations which represent monumental moments in Greek mythos. But what is most wonderful is the character development; we see Circe through love, loss, explorations, conflict, healing and more. Circe’s character arc explores what it means to be immortal, to live in a patriarchal world ruled by gods, and also, more simply, what it means to live. Many readers have noted how, despite Circe’s identity as a powerful witch, the strength of her story is rooted in her relatable flaws and weaknesses. She longs to be accepted and loved, she learns to curb deceivers and liars, and her compassion is constantly at odds with her rage. Primarily, she is a goddess who’s life is tainted by compelixty, backstabbing, and murder, but first and foremost, hers is a story of a woman’s life through pain, love, desire, heartache and motherhood. After reading Circe, we are sure you’ll agree that it seems such an injustice that in original Greek Mythology, Circe is a character we see barely anything of; simply a plot device with evil intentions and little motivation for them. There’s something so empowering in reading the full, open narrative of a woman who was formerly lacking in agency and contextualisation. Narrative agency is deserved for all women in ancient mythology, and Circe offers a huge story spanning generations, many heroes and gods, and opens the door for many other rewritings to follow!
An emotional, self-reflective story
What we were struck by when reading Circe was the introspective, emotional story of her plight, which has been so hidden in other ancient myths. We loved this Goodreads review, which encompassed this perfectly:
“This book is about healing and doing what it takes to come into your own. This book is about love; the love between lovers, the love of a mother, and the love you must find in yourself. This book proves why family of choice will always be greater than family of origin. This book is about magic, and how we can find it in ourselves if we look hard enough. This is a book about becoming the witch you’ve always buried deep inside you.”
Moreover, Madeline Miller herself, in an interview with BookRiot, expressed her intent on projecting a sense of morality onto the story she was weaving with Circe:
“My thoughts about [Circe as caregiver] really start with the gods, who in Greek myth are horrendous creatures. Selfish, totally invested only in their own desires, and unable to really care for anyone but themselves. Circe has this impulse from the beginning to care for other people. She has this initial encounter with Prometheus where she comes across another god who seems to understand that and also who triggers that impulse in her. I wanted to write about what it’s like when you to want to try to be a good person, but you have absolutely no models for that. How do you construct a moral view coming from a completely immoral family?”
An empowering and feminist tale
The life that Circe had to endure showcases the strength of the female condition in so many ways, and the book has been dubbed “beautifully feminist” for this. The book explores the idea of love so boldly, that it takes on familial, romantic, and unconditional love all at once. The entire book is a love letter to love itself and reveals the many things Circe is willing to do in the name of it. Notably, and most importantly, Circe is a tale of being in charge of our own stories as women, and putting oneself first. Interestingly, the details of the intricate feminism worked into Miller’s novel have been included to the finest of pricision. Scholars have long debated whether Circe’s pet lions on Aiaia are supposed to be transformed men, or merely tamed beasts. Miller has spoken on how, in her novel, she chose to make them actual animals in order to honor Circe’s connection to Eastern and Anatolian goddesses. Such goddesses also had power over fierce animals, and are known by the title “Potnia Theron”, or, “Mistress of the Beasts”.
Paving the way for feminist retellings
Ultimately, Circe exposes how tales will always be told differently for a man. Heroes will always be heralded, not heroines, despite a woman perhaps being behind the success a man has reaped. Greek mythology, as well as many other ancient stories, depict women in such a way that showcases them as witches to be feared, temptresses to be ravished, sorceresses that need to be subdued, animals to be tamed, or enchantresses to be defeated. Mothers, servants, oppositions, but never women in their own right. Miller has spoken widely on how she’s opened the door for other retellings of women’s stories, and wrote: “I wasn’t trying to write Circe’s story in a modern way… I was just trying to be true to her experience in the ancient world. It was a very eerie experience. I would put the book away and check the news. The top story was literally the same issue I had just been writing about — sexual assault, abuse, men refusing to allow women to have any power … I was drawn to the mystery of her character — why is she turning men into pigs?” It is harrowing to know that history continues to repeat itself in how women are treated, represented and written, but writers like Madeline Miller are taking the first, much needed, steps to changing this and empowering women with the stories they have always deserved.