Circe: An Enchanting Tale of a Misunderstood Witch
Are Witches Gods or Mortals?
"Never put your faith in a prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a witch." In her short story collection, In the Night Garden, renowned fantasy writer Catherynne M. Valente uses this quote to turn our concept of fairy tales on its head. While princes themselves tend to be far more trustworthy figures in these classic stories, the witches are often the ones who accomplish the driving acts, whether good or bad. A prince is interchangeable within his own story, just one of a mass of others like him, but a witch is irreplaceable, the stuff of legend itself.
Madeline Miller, author of the award-winning The Song of Achilles takes on one of the earliest witches of legend in her second novel, Circe. Best known for transforming men into pigs on her secluded island, Circe has been the subject of multiple paintings, poems, and other works throughout the centuries. But Miller, best known for putting her own spin on Greek mythology, reimagines the sorceress as a complicated, yet compelling figure who may be more than just the wicked witch people make her out to be. Though this Circe has divine blood, she struggles with many of the same questions modern women of all ages ask themselves--and finds herself caught between the world of gods and that of mortals.
What is Circe About?
Circe is a mostly episodic book about the adventures of the eponymous witch, daughter of the sun god Helios. Her and her three siblings are the world's first witches--members of a unique bloodline that straddles the line between gods and mortals. However, as her brothers and sister outshine her, she quickly becomes the black sheep of her family, and is exiled after committing an unforgivable act. From there, she encounters a who's who of mythological figures on her island, from Jason to Odysseus to Athena and Hermes. In the meantime, she falls in love and attempts to find herself in this new life--and finds herself questioning the gods she's always known in the process.
By far Circe's greatest strength is in the way it turns a familiar topic like mythology into its own distinct fantasy world. For the most part, many mythology-based novels lean into either a historical or an urban fantasy view, in which their stories focus on mortals either from the past or the present, with the gods taking a lesser role as figures of mystery and intrigue. Modern-day urban fantasy stories in particular focus on the gods as origin stories or power sources--though Rick Riordan researches his novels in great detail, it could still be said that the Percy Jackson books that introduced many to mythology are more like adventure stories that use mythology as a recurring motif.
Not so with Circe, which makes the world of the ancient Greeks into the sort of thing more commonly expected from high fantasy like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. In fact, Circe has elicited enough comparisons to the latter for HBO to pick it up as its own in-development prestige TV series. From what I have seen of Game of Thrones, I can easily see the Circe TV series attracting those who want the court intrigue of the former with a more feminist spin. It's very much a struggle between a woman who's isolated herself from society and the negative effects that society still has on her.
While Circe's world very much parallels our own, with constant allusions to a powerful upper class taking advantage of women at every opportunity, it also parallels the sort of feudal environment seen in many high fantasy novels--with an important twist. Gods frequently act like capricious human rulers, constantly demanding attention from commoners (which, to them, is the entire human race) and bragging about who has more. Yet Miller's world of gods is far more toxic, to the point where most gods admit that they allow human suffering to continue so they can continue to have an entire race groveling at their feet. People who are grateful to the gods no longer give them offerings, after all.
In this compelling world, the gods are at once mortals' greatest allies and their greatest enemies, and the system is very much structured to keep it that way. If a mortal king were to do the things they did, the humans would soon rebel, and any attempt to make an example out of one figure would only turn that person into an honored martyr. However, any allusion that the gods are not working in mortals' best interests is treated as sacrilege, and humans would rather die from natural causes than be smited by a vengeful god.
Characterization in Circe
While we encounter a wide variety of characters in Circe, Circe herself is by far the most fleshed-out and complex. From a young age, Circe attempts to question the corrupt god system, sparked by an early encounter with Prometheus that shows her humans are worth fighting for. As someone who is neither fully human nor god, she struggles to find her role in a society that believes beings are either one or another. Her answer, as it turns out, is to embrace the title of witch, warts and all. She throws herself into her potions and creates her own culture, even as she's increasingly enticed by the mortal world. It's noteworthy that, while she does take a god as a lover, she's far more attracted to humans like Odysseus and Daedalus, who are far more well-known for their cleverness than any innate power. (Much like Circe herself, who realizes her magic comes from frequent practice and craft.)
Circe's siblings, in the meantime, are also interesting characters in that they frequently succumb to the gods' brutality rather than fighting it. By sending her to the island of Aiaia, where mortals appear far more frequently than gods, the gods have paradoxically given Circe a chance they never had--to see humans as more than vessels for prayer. Therefore, it makes complete sense to see her siblings evolve as they do into the monstrous witches we expect from fantasy stories.
The mortals Circe encounters, by and large, justify the acts she commits toward them. She does not hate mortals so much as she sees the gods' corruption in them, the way many of them treat women like pigs treat a meal. Even Odysseus, seemingly the man Circe admires the most, has his own dark truths that make him distinctly unheroic. In this way, her transformations are her way of lashing out against both worlds, both flavors of patriarchy. Though Circe occasionally comes close to becoming a terrible witch like her siblings, she has just enough regret and resolve in her to never quite turn that corner. Whenever she comes to doubt humans, a truly great human crosses her path, and she remembers what she has fought for all along.
Through her beautiful prose and characterization, Miller weaves a thoroughly unique world from an old tale. As a story of rebellion and self-discovery, I recommend Circe for teens and adults alike, or anyone with Circe's questioning heart struggling to fight against an unjust world.