October Book Review - Circe

Oct 10, 2018

This month, Cathy Lanigan reviews Circe, by Madeline Miller.

No, not that Sersei.  You will have to wait many more months to hear the last chapter of the witch of Westeros, but right now you can follow the story of another powerful, irresistible, terrifying woman ruling over her own land and defying all who attack her. 

You have heard these stories before.  Odysseus and his crew of sailors, Prometheus and his eternal punishment, the mortal inventor Deadalus and his son Icarus, the Minotaur and his appetites.  Circe, by Madeline Miller, is the fictional memoir of a minor character from Greek mythology, but while the story is familiar, Miller gives the well-worn characters new depth and an intimacy that pulls the reader in.  At every turn, the reader has the shock of recognition as familiar characters cross paths with our protagonist.  But in this book, familiar characters are seen anew from a very different perspective.

The daughter of the Titan sun god Helios and the Oceanid sea nymph Perse, our Circe is an immortal, but it is her humanity that gives her story it’s transformative power.  While surrounded by a court of immortals, she watches as Prometheus is given his sentence of eternal torment.  It is what Circe does next – a very human choice - that both cements her fate and allows a human reader to be compelled to go on her journey with her.

As told by Homer and taught in high school English classes, she is little more than one more terrifying trap on the arduous journey toward Ithaca, in the same litany of dangers as Scylla, Charybdis and Polyphemous.

In the epic saga The Odyssey she is portrayed as a vindictive, evil witch who turns Odysseus’ men to pigs and keeps them captive on her island, seemingly just to be mean, and Circe is made to kneel and cower before Odysseus, eventually taking him to bed as penance.

Referring to the depiction of her encounter with Odysseus in The Odyssey, Circe says:

“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.” 

Maybe it’s just me, but I could hear echoes of Sersei Lannister bitterly reflecting on the reputation she is given in Westeros. 

In Circe, Miller gives us a story both epic in scope and deeply intimate.  This book delivers a complex and compelling heroine facing threat upon threat – with her immortality becoming a truly cursed birthright.

Like Sersei Lannister’s saga, this book is filled with adventure, bloody conflict, monsters, magic, betrayal, and loss.  In this exquisitely told story, it is the intimacy of an epic life, the heartbreak, the loss, the love, that makes this immortal truly live in the reader’s heart.  So if you, like me,  just cannot wait until 2019 for the return of Game of Thrones, Circe by Madeline Miller is available today at your library.  This is Cathy Lanigan with the Friends of the Park City Library.