Review: Madeline Miller's "Circe"
When I read Madeline Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles, a few years ago, I realized I had discovered a skilled writer who was well-versed in one of my favorite topics: Greek mythology. With this in mind, when I came across her second book, Circe, my expectations were high. Circe depicts the story of a Greek enchantress notorious for turning men into pigs when they visit her island. Miller’s book allows for a view into this previously mysterious character, and I can say that the story completely exceeded my expectations.
To start, Miller has a remarkable understanding and breadth of knowledge about Greek mythology. Not only does she skillfully discuss the twelve major Olympians, she also masterfully addresses the other, sometimes lesser-known, titans, nymphs, and heroes. Furthermore, she writes about them in such a way that they come to life in a fun and thought-provoking manner which I have not seen since reading Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief in middle school. Miller adds her own flair to the stories as well. The personalities of these mythological individuals manifest as austere, funny, whimsical, or calculating, and the reader can easily imagine how these figures could have played such a large role in ancient Greek society, religion, and culture. Ultimately, Miller creates a story much like historical fiction in that she obviously knows her facts, but she also knows where to bend them so as to create an intriguing read.
Miller’s depiction of Circe provides a fantastic foundation for the story as a whole. I’ve always envisioned Circe to be this mystic, evil enchantress who turns men into pigs just because she feels like it. Miller transforms Circe from a magical and removed enchantress into a dynamic and relatable character. As Miller explores Circe’s insecurities, strengths, dreams, and multiple lovers, the reader uncovers sides to Circe that did not appear in Homer’s depiction. At first an outcast with a thin voice, she soon becomes an exiled, and eventually powerful enchantress who turns men into pigs out of self-protection, not on a whim. And finally, she becomes a mother who must decide when to let her son find his own path. Through these stages, Miller illustrates Circe’s journey from childhood into adulthood so that Circe’s story reflects experiences all readers will encounter in their own lives. Through this process, Miller provides a bridge of entry into ancient Greek literature. Through Circe’s eyes, mythical figures and heroes that exist in Homer or in textbooks become living, breathing beings.
Miller’s treatment of mortality and immortality raises her story to another level. Throughout the text, readers see the benefits afforded favored mortals, what happens when immortals support their mortal counterparts, and the stark contrast between the lives mortals and immortals lead. Circe, herself, struggles with caring for mortals while also recognizing their inevitable end. All of this raises the question of whether immortality is preferable to mortality, and Miller’s approach to this fundamental conflict moves the book beyond a typical summer read to a thought-provoking narrative.
If you like or are even curious about Greek mythology, this is a book worth reading. As Miller touches on the mortals and the immortals, the heroes and the cowards, and the reality of everyday personalities and concerns, she depicts a story that is incredibly dynamic. This read is utterly enchanting, and I enthusiastically recommend it.