Madeline Miller is an award-winning novelist. Her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, is a retelling of the Trojan War through the lens of the love shared between mythological heroes Achilles and Patroclus that she wrote while teaching Greek and Latin to high school students.  It has won the Orange Prize for Fiction and has been translated into 23 languages. Circe is her second novel and is a retelling of the story of Circe, the Greek sorceress and goddess of magic.


That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.

The story is told from the first-person point of view by Circe herself. She begins by describing herself as a being whose name did not yet exist. Born of the titan Helios and the naiad Perse, the story is initiated through the portrayal of a picture of immortals along with the consequences of their immortality. Circe is depicted as an unwelcome and unloved member in the divine family as a result of her perceived ungainliness and timid personality. She lives in the shadows of her unloving parents and superior siblings who harbor no love whatsoever for her. But, as the story progresses, we see her emerge as one of the first sorceresses of the world, and thus a supposed threat to the gods. Terrified of her power, the gods banish her to the island of Aeaea to live out her days in isolation. And it is here that her life truly begins as she encounters many characters such as Pasiphae, Medea, Jason, Daedalus, his ill-fated son Icarus and, most importantly, the wily Odysseus. She grapples with the differences that she possesses from both mortals and gods and even has to deal with the goddess Athena herself.

Madeline Miller can be truly referred to as the Homer of 21st century. Circe has always been painted as the merciless seductress who turns men into pigs and has no empathy or morality, governed by her own desires for the flesh. Madeline Miller has turned the story the other way with a refreshingly feminist tilt. At first, one might feel the language to be a bit too presumptuous, but it is necessary to remember here that it is still a classical retelling of a thousand-year-old myth and hence the brevity and richness of language is essential to do justice to the story.

Circe, in this brilliant retelling, has been shown as something separate from the reckless abandon of immortality, and is a given a complex characterization with a myriad of moments depicting her psychology being more human. Miller has carefully crafted the tale with the right amount of facts nuanced by the psychological aspects of a person very similar to a god, and hence possibly exempt from the morality and empathy characteristic of us mortals.

Miller’s prose is a form of art to be enjoyed. Her narrative has a poetic timber to it that is very much akin to that of an epic and has a melodious quality that seems to complement the era in question. Certain lines seem to pop out, solely because of the way they dance in the reader’s mind.

Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting… I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

He showed me his scars and in return he let me pretend that I had none.

She has also successfully and brilliantly used necessary bits of humor in the narrative without diminishing the quality and grandeur of the language used in the prose.

My father was a harp with only one string and the note it played was himself.

Initially, the character of Circe seems fairly helpless with a consistent undertone of self-hatred, which seems to border on the overbearing at times. However, the splendid character development executed by the author completes Circe’s transformation into a person who can challenge even a god.

Most Greek stories have a tragic ending, hence the much explored term “Greek tragedy”. However, Miller has given Circe an end she deserves, one filled with love and contentment.

Ameya Rating:

For the brilliant narrative, beautiful character arc and the most magnificently redeeming retelling of a story that has been riddled with misogyny, Circe by Madeline Miller deserves a generous 4.5 out of 5. For all Greek mythology enthusiasts, this book comes as a blessing. And for the casual reader, it is one of the few brilliant books that are sure to enrich one’s life by its perfect portrayal of the human psyche from the lens of divinity.

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