Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe is mesmerizing. It’s a lush, occasionally brutal, attention-grabbing, and deeply personal, masterpiece.

We see a woman who for the most of her life has lived in the absence of love and therefore wants the next best thing: to be left alone. Her magic is chiefly used to this end. She despises power games and this puts her far above all the others, even as an invisible unattractive wisp of a girl. Eventually she solidifies herself into this power and comes back on the scene as an inexorable force, the earth element itself personified. An electric journey of self-discovery and acceptance, a being so centered that the entire universe seems to rise and fall and revolve around her place of exile – a remote, guarded island on the edge of the map.

Once Circe is alone and at peace with solitude and with herself, almost from the second she begins to delight in the nature of her surroundings and herself, her power cracks open. Her force of will shapes itself into spells and magic and results and power, earned from nothing but sweat and trying and plants and experiments over strange-smelling bowls in her own home. Windows open to the breeze, pet lion lounging beside her, no one to fear or answer to, none disputing her earthy sovereignty. It’s the essence and origin of sensuality itself, but that’s an idea for another day. From this moment on, Circe becomes a force to be reckoned with. It’s not tricks of magic; the so-called witchcraft becomes a rightful extension of herself. You could say she wears the dress (of power) instead of the dress wearing her. She is grounded and unshakable, and that shoots truer than all the lightning bolts and thunderous roars in all the world. Because unlike everyone else, Circe asks why. Why should I do what you want? Why do you want power and wealth? Why should I? And then she says no.

Circe knows what it is to be small, overlooked, mistreated, powerless, unloved. This is why we love her, why we are so warmly on her side despite the lack of other more obvious lovable qualities. She does not try to be lovable nor does she consider herself to be so; she’s given up thinking in those terms, it would seem. She is powerful and insightful and can have any man she wants, but of course she will only rarely find a man worthy of her. And that dynamic rings true for any woman. Circe’s lonely, bitter desolation of the heart is something that her human readers should have no trouble identifying with in some way or another.

Circe, despite – no, delicately, exactly because of – her insistence on honestly conveying her shell of coldness to us as readers, earns our trust. She seems to lead with her flaws in her own account, to demand “Don’t you dare see me as good.” And that is something, in her world of gods and goddesses and nymphs and monsters and men, that far surpasses something cloying like sweetness. In a world where she could be or do anything, she chose to be real. Moreover, she is real towards us when she could be spinning her story to make herself look good. But she doesn’t, and the truth is, we see nothing there that truly horrifies us.

We, as fragile, imperfect, all-too-human beings ourselves, can related intensely with this being who feels out of place and jaded. We see her brokenness, and so we love her. At one point she looks at Odysseus’ scars and back to her smooth goddess skin, wondering how many scars she would be covered with after everything that has happened to her in her life, if her body did not magically heal every time. We see just how tired she is of it all, how wounded still. And it breaks our hearts too, in her resigned way of course, to be reminded yet again of what has become a theme in this story – wholeness is not possible for those like us, those who want it. No one has it, no one is good. (Well, precious few, at least – Circe does encounter one or two. I’l let you guess whether those were gods or mortals.) And no matter how resigned Circe seems to human (and in this universe, divine) nature, or perhaps because she has been quite so insistent on hammering home that lesson all this time, we feel the disappointment there. She wants love. She doesn’t bother to hide that to us. She can survive without it, and will always go on surviving for too long without it, and that is her tragedy.

Circe is mesmerizing because she tells our own story when she tells her own. The world is a cruel place, ready to chew her up and spit her out laughing the whole time, but she will never be okay with that, and so she must toughen up, find her power, harden her exterior, and then either fight or retreat from it. Changing it was always out of the question. If she – and we- are quite lucky, we will meet a few people in the course of our time under the sun whose memories loom large in the sacred room of our heart.

The events of the last few chapters do feel a bit surprising, the slightest bit rushed, as they constitute such a departure after such a long stretch of Circe being on the island. She was there for so many chapters and so many generations of men that bringing new characters in and having monumental, life-altering decisions and events starting to happen fast and furious does give one the slightest bit of pause to sort of buy into all of a sudden, but it’s worth it. After all, wouldn’t you do the same? Hasn’t her time on the island run its course after all, doesn’t she have the right to a different ending than the one she’s been living this entire time?

She does. And – spoiler alert – she gets it.


Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

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