As a child my love of reading sent me into a wide range of book-related obsessions that oscillated from the common to the esoteric. The first and most enduring of these literary fixations was with Greek mythology, prompted by my discovery of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths in my elementary school’s library. Mesmerized by gods, goddesses, great heroes, and legendary beasts, I was drawn to the stories and the universal truths that lay beneath the fantastic events.
This love for mythology continued as I read and reread Homer’s The Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and took courses in classical civilization during my undergraduate years. I even binge-read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians series as an adult (and loved them!). With this background, I am mortified to say it wasn’t until last month that I finally read Madeline Miller’s acclaimed 2018 novel Circe.
Perhaps most remembered for her transformation of Odysseus’s men into swine in The Odyssey, Circe, the daughter of the Titan sun god Helios, is also known for her transformation of the nymph Scylla and, consequently, her skill in and knowledge of sorcery. In Miller’s novel, Circe follows these mythic plot points while also encountering a wide variety of other classical figures, including the Minotaur, Daedalus, Hermes, and Medea.
Instead of playing the typically auxiliary (though infamous) role in the male-dominated world of Greek gods and heroes, however, Circe is now given a commanding voice, real agency, compelling character growth, and the chance to be the hero in her own story. Circe navigates her path in a way that makes her relatable, inspiring, and captivating to a modern reader, while also providing a shocking ending to a previously well-known and thus predictable tale. With a powerful pantheon of characters, Miller delivers an engrossing, contemporary narrative that is both comfortably familiar and refreshingly subversive.
Looking for more retellings of classic Greek mythology? Check out some more of my favorites: Madeline Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, and Margaret Atwood’s novella The Penelopiad. All of these titles and more are available at CLAMS libraries throughout the Cape, including Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham.
Brittany Taylor is assistant director of the Provincetown Public Library.