It’s been a long time since I raced to get back to a book not to find out what happens next but instead to return to the world found only within its pages. I remember feeling that way about the Chronicles of Narnia series as a kid, for example, or Alice in Wonderland. But I don’t remember ever feeling that yearning for a fictional world as acutely as I have with Circe.
There is no succinct plot of Circe beyond “Circe.” There’s nothing that can be summed up as “a group of kids go on a magical adventure in a fantasy world hidden in a wardrobe.” There is no thesis sentence, as it were; the end of the first chapter does not give you a roadmap for where you’ll be going as you delve deeper into the book. Thankfully, this is no tour de force of navel-gazing. Circe instead focuses describing her world and feelings in such lush detail they could be your own internal monologue, if you were secretly a poet who could break your own heart with the words that spool themselves from your observations.
Of her grandfather’s palace, Circe notes that it “was a great wonder, set deep in the earth’s rock. Its high-arched walls were gilded, the stone floors smoothed by centuries of divine feet. Through every room ran the faint sound of Oceanos’ river, source of the world’s fresh waters, so dark you could not tell where it ended and the rock-bed began. On its banks grew grass and soft gray flowers, and also the unnumbered children of Oceanos, naiads and nymphs and river-gods. Otter-sleek, laughing, their faces bright against the dusky air, they passed golden goblets among themselves and wrestled, playing games of love.”
Circe functions as much as a sort of “behind the scenes” look at Greek myths (to the delight of my myth-obsessed child self) as it does an exploration into a lesser-known character. Her origin story, as it were, is so plaintive that I thought I knew where the end would go by the first quarter. Young Circe is hopelessly naïve, a quality that serves her poorly in a divine world where the other gods cut each other down at every turn and are always scheming about how to improve their lot at the expense of others. Circe risks harsh retribution by giving a little nectar to Prometheus in the painful moments between his public beating and eternal punishment; she finds heartbreak in a mortal, Glaucus, who falls in love with her but abandons her once she turns him into a god. When she inadvertently turns a rival for his affections, Scylla, into the monstrous counterpart of Charybdis, her powers of witchcraft are exposed and she is exiled onto the island Aiaia.
Ah, I thought as I read of her anger and sorrow and exile, this is how she becomes a villain: naivety turned bitter. But Madeline Miller doesn’t take such an easy way out. No, Circe is a far more complex character and book than that. It is arguably a coming-of-age tale of a goddess, told by the centuries instead of the months or years.
With each new appearance in fable—helping her sister Pasiphae birth the Minotaur with the assistance of Daedalus, having an on again-off again fling with Hermes, giving shelter to her niece Medea and her boy-toy Jason (later of golden fleece and Argonaut fame), welcoming and then cursing sailors, including Odysseus, who dared intrude on her solitude—Circe gains more wisdom and scars that build her into a compelling and sympathetic, though certainly not innocent, character. Not even the supporting characters are allowed to be two-dimensional, but rather seem like glimpses of characters who have their own complicated, messy lives.
As solid as the ending is, the real failing of Circe is that it ever ended at all. The world of gods and men and myth is not one that I want to live in, but Circe’s feels magical and honest in a way that makes me homesick for a place that never existed outside of imagination yet feels impossibly real.