By Madeline Miller

Little, Brown and Company | 2018 | 400 pages

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Madeline Miller

Of the season’s new books, Circe by Madeline Miller taught my eye   because of its attractive jacket cover. I recognized Circe’s name as among the Patheon of Greek gods and goddesses but didn’t remember exactly which one she was.

Circe, as it turns out, was a witch who lived mostly alone on the island of Aiaia; she was the daughter of Helios and the nymph Perse. In the Odyssey she turned Odysseus’ men into pigs, but more about that later…

Usually I read history. When I read fiction, I prefer realistic stories, so to delve into a book of fiction, supposedly narrated by the goddess Circe, was a bit of stretch for me, however, not far into the book I was hooked and remained enthralled until the story’s end.

Circe had unusual powers. She was banished to Aiaia for the offense of pharmaka—she gathered flowers, herbs and roots and ground them into potions, which she used to turn lower gods into monsters and humans into lesser mammals. Jealous of the nymph Scylla, she turned her into the monster who hid in the cave on one side of the straits, across from the whirlpool Charybdis, and devoured sailors who passed through. Threatened, Zeus banished Circe to the deserted island, where she continued to ply her craft, tame wild beasts and crossed paths with some of the most famous figures in Greek mythology—Hermes, Athena, Dionysus, Achilles, Daedalus, Heracles, and, of course, Odysseus.

She witnessed her sister Pasiphae, queen of Crete, giving birth to the Minotaur.

She lived in lovely home on Aiaia, possessed a loom made by Daedalus, and had pet lions as her favored company, hiking about this paradise, gathering herbs to use for her spells. It’s probably not hard to see why Ms. Miller picked her to narrate her story and why it appeals especially to women—how wonderful it might be to command the winds and, above all, to be able to turn offensive men into pigs!

One of the things I noticed was neither Circe nor any of the other characters in the book ever seem to be cold, even when washed ashore or nearly drown, but then being cold must be a characteristic reserved for humans alone.

I am reminded there was a time when Greeks sincerely believed in this panoply of gods and goddesses. From them, we inherited some of our deeper understanding of psychology—the word itself from Psyche and the Oedipal complex from Oedipus. The Romans likewise admired them and renamed the gods, giving them Latin names, but when their practical mentality won, they deemed all this so much poppycock and were rudderless until Constantine established Christianity as the state religion in the Fourth Century AD, which scholars like Gibbons deemed the death blow to the Roman Empire.

Sorry for the digression…

Circe, this woman, this goddess, who stood against the world, had a weakness for morals, and when the sole ship among those that had set sail from Ithaca, landed on Aiaia, Odysseus and his men were exhausted and battle-weary. At first Circe turned his men into pigs but when he came and requested the she reverse this spell, she compiled and fell into love with him. They lingered with her for a season before setting out once again for Ithaca; by then Circe was pregnant.

I think the last section of the book may be Ms. Miller’s construction. After a difficult pregnancy, she gives birth to Telegonus. Finding that Athena wants to destroy him she does all in power to ensure his safety

Not wanting to spoil the story for those of you interested, I’ll only say that, when grown, despite Circe’s objections, Telegonus sets sail for Ithaca to find his father, and from there interesting events ensue.

I felt empowered reading Circe. When finished, I missed its characters. What better recommendation is that?

Jane McCabe is the associate editor of the Neworld Review and a frequent contributor.

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