Greek Myth Retelling Readathon – Part 1: Circe by Madeline Miller

A quick intro to this readathon! I love Greek mythology. I studied Classics at university and have spent hours poring over the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid in particular. But I’ve been really late in actually picking up any of the most recent swathe of Greek myth retellings which began (arguably) with The Song of Achilles in 2012, and continue up to the present, with new titles such as Ithaca and Stone Blind.

This is my attempt to fix that! Between now and Christmas I’ll be reading as many of these retellings as I can get my hands on (I’m still operating quite a strict no book buying policy), and reviewing them here. I’m hoping that reading them in close(ish) succession will be both fun and enable a bit of comparison across titles.

So, without further ado… on to Retelling Number 1!…

Circe by Madeline Miller

This is the second offering from Madeline Miller (who with her first book, Song of Achilles (2012), arguably spearheaded this most recent trend for retellings). Circe (2018) takes the story of the titular character – a goddess-witch who has a bit part in Homer’s Odyssey, receiving Odysseus on her island and turning his crew into pigs – and spreads it out in eon-spanning detail.

I gobbled up this story. Two elements I particularly enjoyed:

(1) The discussion on immortality

Our protagonist, Circe, is immortal – but she also comes across as strangely vulnerable. On the one hand, she watches centuries flit by, and appears to normal humans as something unearthly; but then on the other hand, she is the oddball of her family, abandoned and ridiculed by those she fiercely loved, and suffering agonising guilt over one particular episode that occurs early on in the story.

Throughout the book, we watch her trying to find agency and companionship while in exile. Her witchcraft shapes her identity, enabling her to defend herself and cultivate some pride in who she is – but she’s always uncomfortable with her immortality. To me, this made her voice a really interesting and engaging one.

β€œI thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”

Circe, Madeline Miller

Miller does not shy away from showing the otherness of Circe that stems from her being a goddess. She has unearthly abilities (separate from her witchcraft, which is portrayed more as a learned skill) – for example at one point she walks deep into the ocean to speak to the god of stingrays – but she also tells her own story in a down-to-earth (excuse the pun) way. At one point (and I’m being vague because I don’t want to spoiler) I highlighted almost a whole chapter because of how relatable I found what Circe was going through.

By the end, we’re actually been privy to a whole intricate discussion on what immortality means and how it has affected Circe and the others in her story. I found it added huge depth to this epic world of Olympians, Titans, nymphs and monsters.

(2) The intersection with other myths and characters

Over the course of her long, long life, Circe interacts with various other characters and storylines that we know from myth – including Daedalus and Icarus, Ariadne and her brother the minotaur, Medea, and of course Odysseus. These intersections are so well imagined and organic, and by the end I felt that my experience of each myth was enriched by the different perspective offered.

While again I don’t want to say too much that is specific here so as not to spoil the experience for first time readers, I will say there were twists in this story that genuinely surprised and delighted me. Characters I thought I knew revealed hidden depths, and places where the original source material leaves off or is a little murky were expanded and illuminated gloriously. To me, everything made complete sense when set alongside the original ancient myths, while also being a very confident and sometimes daring reinterpretation of those myths.

To conclude….

While there are certainly some darker moments, the overall the tone of this story felt to me on the lighter side, and I just had a lot of fun reading it. For a story set in a world of myth that I thought I knew, I was also pleasantly surprised how much it made me think, and how much it caught me off my guard. Circe’s ending genuinely brought tears to my eyes. I would highly recommend this book.

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