“Think a novel based on Greek mythology isn’t for you? Just wait” (People). Madeline Miller’s bestselling, critically acclaimed second novel Circe—about the goddess Circe—has been called “spellbinding” (O Magazine), “vivid, transporting” (Entertainment Weekly), “an epic page turner” (Christian Science Monitor), and “a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting” (Guardian). Following her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, Miller takes on the world of gods, monsters, mortals, and nymphs in this “bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right” (New York Times). Miller “paints an uncompromising portrait of a superheroine who learns to wield divine power while coming to understand what it means to be mortal” (Publishers Weekly, Starred Review). The myths have been retold many times “and yet in Miller’s lush reimagining, the story feels harrowing and unexpected. The…fate that awaits Circe is at once divine and mortal, impossibly strange and yet entirely human” (Washington Post).
"The sun beat upon the horizon. It beat everywhere, upon my back and arms and face. I wore no shawl. I would not burn. I never did." — Circe
“Human nature and its attendant folly, passion, pride and generosity has not changed in the past three thousand years, and is always relevant.” – from madelinemiller.com
Madeline Miller’s novel Circe (pronounced SUR-see) is a story about a Greek mythological goddess. She is a minor character in many old texts, most notably the Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem written at the end of the 8th century BCE, and the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s epic poem completed in the year 8 CE. But whereas Homer, Ovid, and other authors depict Circe as weak or evil and lacking nuance, Miller reimagines her as a complex, “passionately empathetic and strong-willed woman” determined to find her own path and evolve (Girls’ Night In). She “is always presented [in old texts] through the perspective of Odysseus and the male heroic tradition,” Miller told Bustle. “We get no sense of Circe’s internal life, motivations, or history. She’s just another adventure for the hero to have, a sexy witch who makes Odysseus look good. I wanted to strip that objectification away, and allow her the same three-dimensionality, agency, and center stage that Odysseus has.”
To best portray her that way, Miller has Circe tell her story in her own voice, which Homer describes as sounding human. Miller was drawn in by the mystery of that. “To me that suggested that she was a person caught between two worlds, the divine and the mortal, belonging fully to neither” (thelibrary.org). And neither world, as it turns out, offers Circe a solid model for morality: the former is unabashedly, unwaveringly narcissistic and she has too little exposure to the latter. “She starts out really unable to say what she thinks and by the end of the book, she’s able to live life on her terms and say what she thinks and what she feels” (BookRiot).
Circe begins her story with her own birth. She is the daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun and father of many children, and Perse, one of the daughters of the Titan god Oceanus. She is a nymph—“least of the lesser gods” (p. 3)—and as a child is relentlessly ridiculed by her sister, Pasiphae, and brother, Perses. To escape her lonely existence and the cruel gods of her youth, Circe seeks the company of a mortal fisherman, falls in love, and grants him immortality with the help of a magical herb. When another nymph, Scylla, lures him away, a young Circe succumbs to jealousy and uses the herb to punish Scylla and reveal the ugliness within her, but is shocked by the unintended, harsh outcome: Scylla turns into a six-headed sea monster who will smash ships and feed on mortals for the next thousand years. Full of shame, Circe does something her fellow gods would never do: she admits her wrongdoing. “Circe is born into a society that structurally doesn't grant her any power,” Miller told thelibrary.org. “In fact, at every turn she's belittled, disrespected and objectified. So she has a choice: she can live with that, or she can find a way to fight for herself. She chooses to fight.”
Fearing her use of (what the gods perceive as) witchcraft, Zeus—king of the gods—exiles Circe to the uninhabited island of Aiaia for all of eternity. Alone for the first time, she makes herself at home, weaving, cooking, and collecting, drying, chopping, and experimenting with herbs to perfect her witchcraft. “What the solitude allows is for Circe to be who she is without having her selfhood deformed by the expectation of her father, family, or society. She can finally say: who am I, really? Whom do I want to be? What do I believe in?” (Refinery29).
As the years pass, she is visited by a host of characters, some welcome, some not: the mischievous Hermes, son of Zeus and the god of travelers and trickery, who drops in unannounced with gossip and a desire to stir up controversy; the master craftsman Daedalus, a mortal who comes to take her to Crete and back so she can help her sister give birth to the Minotaur (a being with the body of a male and the head of a bull); her niece, Medea, and Medea’s husband, Jason; and Odysseus, the wily prince of Ithaca, whose men she turns into pigs. She forms a special bond with Odysseus as he spends time on her island, healing after his many years fighting in the Trojan War. Circe “ends up being one of the most helpful people he meets on his journey,” Miller explained. “That healing, wise, benevolent part of her has been largely erased, and I wanted to bring it back” (Bustle).
Circe becomes pregnant with Odysseus’s son. Though motherhood does not come easy to her, she raises her son, Telegonus, into adulthood with intense love, protecting him from Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war arts, who wants him dead to ward off a prophesy. The story continues with more plot twists and turns typical of the Greek myths, involving two more characters that enter Circe’s life: Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and her son, Telemachus. “It was such a pleasure to have Penelope waiting for me in the last stretch of the novel!” says Miller. The relationship between Circe and Penelope “represents the closing of one of the most, to me, poignant threads of the novel, which is Circe’s desire for true and genuine connection” (RoosterGNN).
That human need for connection is at the heart of the Greek myths and why they endure, says Miller. “I think sometimes people are intimidated by [the myths]—they believe that they are only for elite readers. But that’s not the case at all, and never has been. Homer’s poems were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition—they were stories told by grandparents to their grandchildren, they were stories everyone knew. And they have lived because they are such potent tales of human nature. So many thousands of years later, they still hold the mirror up: we still love and grieve, hope and despair, go to war, and yearn for peace. If we look past the chariots and spears, these ancient stories are incredibly modern, and have much to teach us about ourselves” (RoosterGNN).
- Circe begins her story with a description of the immortal world into which she is born, detailing the abusive power of the Greek gods. Do you think the gods are abusive because they are powerful and/or immortal? What does Circe come to learn about power?
- As a child, Circe witnesses the public torture of her uncle Prometheus, who eased the suffering of humans by bringing them the gift of fire. In what ways does Circe’s encounter with her uncle change her?
- Circe has a strong bond with her baby brother, Aeëtes. Why do their paths diverge so drastically when he gets older? Why do you think he makes the choices that he does?
- Circe’s sister Pasiphaë is first presented to readers as wholly unsympathetic. After their visit in Crete, however, Circe—while detesting her sister’s behavior—comes to understand and ultimately sympathize with her sister’s yearning for independence and struggle to control her own destiny. Could either of them have achieved these goals another way? What constraints were they up against? Do you think certain groups of people face the same constraints today?
- Miller has said that in writing her novel, she was interested in exploring the different ways women react to trauma and childhood abuse. How would you describe the varied ways Circe, Pasiphaë, and Medea deal with trauma? In what ways has the violence in their lives affected their decisions?
- Circe and Medea are known as two of the most powerful witches of ancient literature. In what ways are they similar and/or dissimilar to other witches you’ve encountered in myths and fairytales? In what ways are they similar and/or dissimilar to each other?
- There are numerous references to crafts in the novel, including weaving, carpentry metal-working, even witchcraft. Why does Circe seek to master these crafts? How important are they to her identity? To her survival?
- Circe says that when she first meets Odysseus he seems familiar to her. Why do you think she says that? Whom, if anyone, does he remind her of? Why do you think she helps him?
- Is Circe a good parent? What are her strengths and weaknesses as a single mother to her son, Telegonus?
- Circe wonders if parents can ever see their children clearly. She notes that so often when looking at our children “we see only the mirror of our own faults.” What parts of herself does she see when she looks at Telegonus? Do you think your parents or caretakers see (or saw) you clearly? If you’re a parent, what parts of yourself do you see in your child/children? Do you think you can see them clearly?
- Circe is a natural caretaker, but sometimes her impulse to nurture others comes under threat of being abused or exploited. How does Circe try to protect herself while giving of herself at the same time? Does she succeed? Can you think of instances in your own life when that balance of nurturing and self-protection has been threatened?
- Did you relate in any way to Circe’s sense of loneliness and/or longing for a home or “nostos” (an Ancient Greek word for “homecoming,” a central theme in Homer’s Odyssey)? If so, what are some of the things you’ve done (or do) to cope? Does Circe ever find her “home”?
- Circe is interested in Penelope from the moment she hears about her from Odysseus. What draws her to Penelope? In what ways do her feelings toward Penelope shift once they meet in person?
- Circe says to Telemachus, “Do not try to take my regret from me.” What does she mean by this? What does Circe regret? Would you have someone take away your regret if you could?
- Circe’s gift is her ability to transform. How does she transform from the beginning of the novel to the end? Why do you think she ultimately chooses the path she takes at the end? If you were Circe, would you have chosen that path?
- Before you began the novel, were you familiar with any of the figures who appear in the story, e.g., from ancient texts, modern retellings, and/or pop culture? If so, where did you learn of the characters and what were they like? Were their portrayals in this novel different and/or surprising to you?
- “I think it’s important when reading a classic work to ask: whose stories are being told, and whose stories have been left out or suppressed?” says Miller. She references Geraldine Brooks’s March, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly as good examples of novels that recast their source texts “in wonderful, original ways, giving voice to characters who have been largely silent” (Bustle). Is there a character whose story you feel has been suppressed? Why? What might you imagine that character’s story to be?
Discussion questions adapted from source material provided by Madeline Miller.