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Staff Picks: Circe by Madeline Miller

cover artI’ve had an interest in Greek mythology going back to middle school, when we had a unit on the subject in our English class. Around the same time, I read the Percy Jackson series of novels (the original five – the spin-off series, and the other novels released under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, were not yet out), plus anything else I could get my hands on about the different Greek gods and their stories. Recently my mother read Circe by Madeline Miller and, knowing my interest in mythology and fantasy, recommended it to me.

Reading Miller’s novel was certainly a different experience from reading the Odyssey in high school English class. In Miller’s retelling, gods are seldom good, heroes are hardly ever heroic, and our protagonist must rely on her own wits and determination in order to forge a place for herself in a cruel world. Circe is a nymph, one of many daughters of the sun god Helios. Like most nymphs, Circe isn’t thought of too well by the Olympian deities or the Titans (the gods of her father’s generation who ruled before the Olympians). Then, she begins to explore the forbidden pharmaka, or use of herbs in spells and charms. Once the gods find out that Circe is experimenting with witchcraft, they send her into permanent exile on the island of Aiaia.

Once in exile, Circe meets some of the most famous figures from Greek mythology. There is the legendary inventor Daedalus, who enlists her help in controlling the fearsome Minotaur; Medea, (daughter of Circe’s brother, Aeetes), who used magic and murder to help Jason obtain the Golden Fleece; and, of course, Odysseus. Without spoiling too much of the story, I thought Miller wrote an interesting take on the relationship between Circe and Odysseus. It was certainly different from what I remembered of the Odyssey. Yes, Circe still transforms Odysseus’s crew into pigs, but the telling of the story from her perspective rather than his casts the events in a new light.

The novel also makes some interesting points about what it means to be powerful and to wield power. For the gods, that power comes from fear:  Mortals’ fear that, if they do not make offerings and show due reverence, then the gods will unleash their wrath. For Circe and other female deities, power is something you need to grab and hold on to on your own. Circe finds her power through pharmaka and witchcraft. The unfortunate nymph Scylla, transformed into a monster by an angry, jealous Circe, gains her own sort of power. Shortly after the transformation, Aeetes remarks to Circe that “a monster always has a place,” compared to a nymph, who is largely treated as useless no matter her personal strengths. Now Scylla “may have all the glory her teeth can snatch. She will not be loved for it, but she will not be constrained either.” If anything, Aeetes says, Circe’s magic improved Scylla, giving her a power she could never dream of in her previous form. Transformation – Circe’s into a witch, Scylla’s into a monster, and others – is a recurring theme in the book. The different scenarios prompt the reader to consider the cost of power, and what they might be willing to do to have control over their own lives.

I recommend Circe to anyone with an interest in mythology, a fondness for retellings of “classic” stories, or fantasy.