I confess, I could not put this book down, reading well past midnight more often than I should have–and then coming to school blurry-eyed but excited to tell my freshmen of its recent developments. While I was reading The Odyssey by day with my 9th graders, I was reading Circe by night, revealing to them each morning, the more complex story of the witch as created by Madeline Miller, through the lens of ancient myth combined with traditional tale and feminism. The book feels like Percy Jackson for adults: a page-turning drama weaving bits and pieces of Greek and Roman myths and segments of The Odyssey into a creative–and perhaps feminist– interpretation. Circe is cast as far more human, far more likable, and far more vulnerable than I had ever imagined. Miller maintains believability while also offering us her side of the story: the denigration she suffered under her father (the sun-God, Helios), the immaturity she possessed as a novice witch, the hopelessness at being exiled to Aiaia, the humiliation of becoming victim to sexual predators, the powers she honed on her island, the trust she earned and received, and ultimately, the love she felt for her mortal child–a love so deep that it exemplifies the human maternal instinct: a mother will do anything to protect her child.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that parts of the plot which I had assumed were fiction, were, in fact, retelling of myths I should have been aware of. For example, I did not know that Circe (in her early years) is known to have created the sea monster, Scylla, or that Odysseus and Circe had a son, Telegonus, who accidentally kills his father (many years after his father returns home). Other characters who enter the story, were well-known to me through familiar myths (Prometheus, Daedalus, Jason, Medea, Pasiphaë, Aeetes, King Minos, the Labyrinth), but I enjoyed the way Miller wove them into Circe’s story. I’m not certain where myth ends and creative interpretation begins, but perhaps that does not matter. Miller has produced a compelling story centered around a complex heroine who navigates a tumultuous world of gods and humans. But the themes in her story–love, jealousy, female empowerment, protection, loneliness, loss, power, contentment–are as relevant today as they were when Homer first told the story of the hero Odysseus and the witch Circe.