There is no book in this whole wide world that can accurately explain to you the stories of the Titans, Olympians, heroes and demigods of Greece, exactly as they occurred aeons ago. There are a variety of retellings which share a similar skeleton and are adorned with the style and imagination of the chronicler. Nevertheless, these retellings are a source of multiple insights into the fantastic world that existed atop Mount Olympus and the magic that (may have) permeated into a mortal world. These retellings are a respite from the mechanical drudgery of a predictable world, a world where there are no nymphs, cyclops, sirens, gorgons, hippogriffs to entertain us as we sit in the audience at the amphitheatre of our lives.
“Circe” by Madeline Miller is a retelling of the story of Circe, the daughter of the Titan Helios and ocean nymph Perse, witch extraordinaire of the island Aiaia, friend (and much more) of Hermes, Daedalus and Odysseus, mother of Telegonus and a lesser Goddess.
First things first: If you’ve read “Percy Jackson and the Olympians – Sea of Monsters (Book 2)”, you would know Circe as C.C., the owner of a magical beauty salon, who turned all the males who came to her island into guinea pigs. That anecdote gave us a brief glimpse of Circe, sitting “at a loom the size of a big screen TV, her hands weaving colored thread back and forth with amazing skill”, trying to help men unlock their ‘real’ selves. When I read this description of Circe by Rick Riordan, it did seem mildly amusing. But after reading Miller’s extensive retelling of Circe’s journey right from her birth to her death, I am in stunned awe of this lesser known Greek goddess.
Miller traces Circe’s journey right from the day her parents, Helios and Perse, met. Circe is not as beautiful as her siblings nor is she as powerful as her parents. She is a disgrace among the gods and nymphs, with an almost-mortal voice. She discovers her talent at witchcraft out of simultaneous and opposing feelings of love (towards a mortal man) and hate (towards a nymph). Threatened by a power far stronger than divinity, Zeus exiles Circe to the island of Aiaia for the rest of her eternal life. There she hones her (witch)craft alone, without anyone to consult save her natural instincts. She thus rebuilds her life and emerges as a strong woman, capable of defending herself against the lustful desires of shipwrecked / worn-out sailors with the help of a potent brew and a curse muttered quickly under her breath. However, the Olympians and the Fates and mortals (and basically everyone else except her tamed lions and wolves) meddle into her affairs at regular intervals, throwing curveballs into her path, even though they are scared of her talents.
Read this awe-inspiring story of how Circe transformed in a zero-to-hero fashion, stood up to the wrath of the many gods and mortal men and took tough decisions to protect the people she loved the most.
What I liked about this book is that it beautifully covers many mortal hardships like: trying to fit in in a place where everyone is smarter and better than you are, the magical moment when you realise that you have a superior, hidden, uncultivated talent, the precious journey of exploring that talent through sheer hardwork, the triumph when that talent can finally be put to use, the torture of the awareness that the talent cannot be used to protect the people you love, the struggle to come to terms with the repercussions of the major mistakes made at a minor age, the attempt to right earlier wrongs and much more.
And the prose! The prose is heavenly! I cannot believe that anyone can write such awesomeness without swallowing a herb mixture made by the mighty Circe herself. I was totally absorbed into the book right from the first sentence, and sighed deeply as I reached the last line. I want more! (Of course, I will read “Song of Achilles” soon. I can’t get enough of Madeline Miller’s writing!)
My favourite chapters in this book have to be the ones where Circe and Odysseus meet (Chapter 15) and enjoy each other’s company (Chapater 16) and then keep delaying their eventual and certain separation (Chapter 17).
You don’t need to have any prior knowledge of Greek myths to read this book. If you’ve read and loved Percy Jackson as a young adult, you will be thrilled to no end with “Circe”. My knowledge of Greek Mythology is limited to Percy Jackson, Olympus by Devdutt Pattanaik and a few reference books that I had purchased on my Kindle aeons ago. Hell, I don’t even know much about the Trojan war (Though I plan to change this status quo soon). And yet I enjoyed “Circe”. Miller introduces the reader to Helios, Zeus, Daedalus, Athena, Jason, Odysseus, Medea, Aeetes, Penelope, Telemachus through the eyes of Circe in the most uncomplicated way, so even novices to Greek Mythology can read and appreciate this book. (I have purposely mixed up the order of the names, so as to avoid giving any spoilers beyond mentioning the names. Yes, I know I’m an idiot. Even mentioning the names is spoiler enough. But who said I’ve mentioned all the names? *smirks* )
I give this book a 5/5 star rating and recommend it to everyone, mortal, hero, demigod or god. It’s one of the best books that the Muses have given us in 2018.
For newbies into the world of Greek Mythology, this book can be a good place to start: Mythology Unbound: An Online Textbook for Classical Mythology by Jessica Mellenthin and Susan O. Shapiro