When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.
Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perse, a beautiful naiad. Yet from the moment of her birth, she is an outsider in her father's halls, where the laughter of gossiping gods resounds. Named after a hawk for her yellow eyes and strange voice, she is mocked by her siblings – until her beloved brother Aeëtes is born.
Yet after her sister Pasiphae marries King Midas of Crete, Aeëtes is whisked away to rule his own island. More isolated than ever, Circe, who has never been divine enough for her family, becomes increasingly drawn to mortals – and when she meets Glaucus, a handsome young fisherman, she is captivated. Yet gods mingle with humans, and meddle with fate, at their peril.
In Circe, Madeline Miller breathes life once more into the ancient world, with the story of an outcast who overcomes scorn and banishment to transform herself into a formidable witch. Unfolding on Circe's wild, abundant island of Aiaia, where the hillsides are aromatic with herbs, this is a magical, intoxicating epic of family rivalry, power struggles, love and loss – and a celebration of female strength in a man's world.
Reviewed by Olivia at Angus & Robertson:
I do love a good witch story. Luckily, Madeline Miller has written the mother of all witch stories - the tale of Circe, the first known witch in Western mythology. Born to Helios, the sun god, and the nymph Perses, Circe begins her life as an outsider in Poseidon’s halls as her mysterious powers gradually bloom. And bloom they do, to astonishing and terrible effect. With Circe, Madeline Miller takes the classic stories we know so well and breathes new life into them. Circe crosses paths with a multitude of characters, from Daedalus the famed craftsman to mighty Athena herself, and each one shines off the page. But none shine brighter than the witch herself.
It’s a rare feat to make the story of one individual as vast and magnificent in scale as the original tales of the gods, but Madeline Miller, a teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek at Brown University, is perhaps the most natural choice to tell this story. Like the island of Aiaia Circe is exiled to for her sorcery, this is a story abundant with riches. Miller’s writing is simple but it has an epic quality to it, her words winding their way through your imagination until you are completely lost in the story. The tale of Circe’s life may be ancient in its origin but it’s written here with such complexity and sensuality that it feels totally contemporary. Circe’s emotions drive most of the novel, and while Miller dwells often in her moments of pain, there are triumphs enough to match it. Witnessing Circe blossom from a timid demi-goddess into a witch in full command of her power was nothing short of exhilarating.
It’s arguably quite a presumptuous feat to re-write the stories of the gods, even for a writer of Madeline’s calibre, and I suspect that many a diehard classicist will turn up their nose at this book. I urge you not to - the brilliance of Madeline Miller’s vision makes it truly worthy of the attempt. Under her pen, the gods have never felt more alive.