Book of the week: Madeline Miller continues her career in classics adaptations with ‘Circe’

Ashley Pelletier, Arts & Life Editor

'Circe' focuses on the mythological witch from Homer's 'The Odyssey.'
‘Circe’ focuses on the mythological witch from Homer’s ‘The Odyssey.’ (Ashley Pelletier)

Ever since I was young, I have loved reading Greek myths. From “Percy Jackson and The Olympians” to myth anthologies from my middle school library, I couldn’t get enough. “Circe,” written by Madeline Miller, is my latest read in a number of mythological adaptations.

The novel follows Circe, the daughter of sun-god Helios. She is ostracized from her divine relatives because of her overall lack of power. However, she discovers that she is a pharmakis — a witch — and is eventually exiled to an island known as Aiaia after admitting to using her talents to turn the nymph Scylla into a man-eating monster.

“Circe” is not Miller’s first adaptation within the mythology genre. Her 2011 novel, “The Song of Achilles,” focuses on Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship outside of the events of Homer’s “The Iliad.” While her first novel is enjoyable, “Circe” shows clear improvement.

The implications of being a goddess are an alluring aspect of the novel. Circe is forced to watch as mortals she has experienced a close relationship with, including Daedalus, Ariadne and Odysseus, die of old age or at the hands of other gods.

On top of the handling of her divinity, Circe’s femininity is also addressed well. For a majority of the novel, Circe is as morally gray as her other divine peers, however, she has a very human reason for her transgressions. For instance, her turning men into pigs, which is one of the prominent things known about her based on her role in “The Odyssey,” is an act of protection against rape and pillaging from Greek soldiers who pass by Aiaia.

While Circe is a goddess, Miller writes her as a human.

She is flawed, often being portrayed as foolish, especially at the beginning of the novel. However, her humanity shines through as she raises her demigod son, Telegonus. When Telegonus is threatened by the goddess Athena, Circe does anything to defend her son, even though she is considered a much weaker goddess than Athena. If Miller chose to make Circe infallible, the novel wouldn’t be as good. It’s her mistakes and hardships that make the story what it is.

The humanizing of Odysseus is another important factor in “Circe.” Odysseus shares a brief romantic relationship with Circe, which leads to the reader seeing his imperfections. Odysseus is far from a good man, and that shows as he loses his mind after returning to Ithaca, a series of events that is not in “The Odyssey.” It is realistic that the sole-returning “hero” would go mad, and I like that addition of Miller’s.

However, Miller missed the opportunity for one more moment with Pasiphaë, Circe’s sister. The two had a strained relationship growing up, but there is a moment after Pasiphaë gives birth to the Minotaur where she acknowledges her similarities with Circe. While Circe does not forgive Pasiphaë, the dynamic between them following that moment went underutilized when it could have been more interesting.

Although I believe adaptations saturate our media market, those like “Circe” and Natalie Haynes’s “A Thousand Ships” turn the narrative of male-centric stories enough that they are worth consuming. They get you thinking about society’s treatment of women throughout history in a new lens. Also, both are really fun to read, especially for those who already enjoy Greek mythology and Homer.