Throwback Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Read: November 16, 2019

The book follows the life of Circe, daughter of Helios, god of the sun. She is not powerful like her father or alluring like her mother, but she discovers that she has the power of witchcraft. Threatened by her power, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she develops her craft and tames wild animals. In her life she meets many famous figures from Greek mythology and struggles with the dilemma of whether she belongs with the Gods or with the humans she comes to love.

insterted from my Goodreads

Let me preface this by saying that I, like every other Greek, was raised on Greek mythology. My earliest reading memories consist of me devouring one mythology picture book after the other. We study Greek mythology as a whole in our history classes in third grade in elementary school. We study Homer’s epics in their entirety, both the ancient and the translated in modern greek texts, in high school. The myths and their heroes are carved into my brain and I’m particularly fond of Homer’s Odyssey. And that’s why I went into Circe expecting to love it.

But, I didn’t.

Circe is not a badly written book. In fact, its prose is beautiful, and I enjoyed a big part of it. I loved how different myths were woven into the story and many of my beloved heroes showed up and interacted with Circe. The first two parts of the book were very engaging, I flew through them despite some issues I had concerning the characters. The plot kept me going.

That all ended when Odysseus left the island. When Homer’s Odyssey ended and Hesiod’s versions of the heroes’ lives came to play. Now, I don’t really like Hesiod’s narration of how Odysseus’ life continued and eventually ended when he finally returned to Ithaca, but even he doesn’t present Odysseus as such an asshole, borderline villainous, as he’s being shown to be at the third part of this book. I read Circe’s interactions with Penelope and Telemachus and I didn’t recognise them. I felt everything I know about them pushing back in my brain against the things I was reading.

Also, I don’t know what kind of grudge the author might have against Athena, but she sure has one, because that cold bitch I was reading about isn’t the goddess of wisdom I know and love. Actually, all the Gods in this book are presented through Circe’s narrations and experiences as nasty, borderline false villains. That’s not how Greek gods work. They’re supposed to represent the extremes of human behaviour- both good and bad. No god is inherently benevolent or a villain. They all act on a spectrum, they all can perform good and “evil” deeds. And that’s why they were worshipped.

The thing is, I could have brushed all those things aside while reading if I was enjoying the titular character, aka the reason I picked this book up in the first place. But, Circe did not live up to my expectations. I went into the story expecting to see the badass, incredibly clever, morally grey, powerful witch that spicied up our heroes’ journeys. Instead, I was introduced to a whiny, needy, childish girl who spends most of the story being passive. Instead of a great witch performing her craft just because she wants to and she can, we get an ignored child who starts, and keeps, practicing witchcraft out of jealousy and the need to be loved. And that in itself is not a bad thing. But she never grows from that. Not even after the terrible and completely unecessary thing that happens to her (an invention of the author that isn’t mentioned in any myth and I still don’t see why it was written at all). Up until the last line of the book, everything Circe does is out of the need to be loved by a man. Honestly, Circe in this book reminded me more of the old witches in our folklore than the powerful sorceress who turned men into pigs and distracted Odysseus from his journey in Homer’s epic.

To sum up, Circe left me disappointed, a sad situation since I really enjoyed the author’s previous book, The Song of Achilles. (Maybe I would’ve found similar problems in that one too if I felt about the Iliad as strongly as I feel about the Odyssey, who knows?) Circe is not a book I think I will ever feel the need to read again. I don’t hate it, I don’t love it, but at least it looks pretty on my bookcase!

Have you read Circe? What are your thoughts on it?

4 comments

  1. I’m so glad someone else feels similarly about this book – I thought something must be wrong with me because everyone absolutely adored it and the only thing I really liked was the writing style 🙈 The way the gods were portrayed didn’t actually bother me that much (I just thought Circe was an unreliable narrator and might be portraying things with a bit of bias; and I guess, yes, sometimes the gods can be petty…). But I thought that about 50 pages in, the book got kind of boring. It didn’t really add enough to the original myth to make it intriguing, and it just felt very unemotional, apart from Circe’s whining… 😅 So yeah, I was kind of disappointed by this one, too 😉 Although I am kind of torn on whether I should give Madeline Miller a second chance and read The Song of Achilles, since I did like the way she writes…

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re definitely in the minority, but I’m happy to know there are others who didn’t enjoy this book. You make a point with the unreliable narrator, but the non-stop bashing of the gods throughout the book was pretty tiring.

      I really enjoyed Song of Achilles, so I recommend you give it a chance. I read it a long time before Circe though, so I don’t know how your impression of the later might affect your reading of the former. Miller has beautiful prose, so at least you’ll enjoy that!

      Like

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