The Magic of Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’

An exploration of the way Madeline Miller finds beauty in sadness.

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Circe, sat on an ornate chair, arms outstretched, holding a golden cup.
Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse, 1891. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Content warning: This article contains a mention of rape and discussion of trauma.

As a reader I have always been suspicious of happy endings. What can a book do, when in real life those endings will inevitably fall apart? I have worried about sadness in novels. A friend of mine once said of Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight, an unrelentingly miserable book, that they didn’t see how it helped anyone. It only meant that whoever read it was made miserable too. Yet, I think it is precisely the sadness of Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe, that makes it the masterpiece it is.

A re-telling of the life of the Greek goddess Circe, most famous for hosting Odysseus on her island on his long journey home from the Trojan War, the novel is as captivating as it is tender. Released in paperback on the 1st of April, it is a tour de force in the art of writing struggle, and reading it becomes, under Miller’s protective spell, an act of healing. The narrative thrust of the novel is essentially that of a Bildungsroman, and within that tradition Circe seems a Grecian equivalent of Jane Eyre. Indignant and passionate, she begins the novel a child wronged by her family and made to feel an outcast.

This culminates in her exile to the island Aiaia, where she is sentenced to live out her eternity alone. Circe, like Jane, has herself to fall back on, and though she faces moments of despair, she finds solace in her pharmika, her witchcraft. Miller presents her spell-work so that it seems an allegory for the act of writing. Through her magic Circe learns that she can ‘bend the world to [her] will’. Spells seem more like poems, ‘each […]  a mountain to be climbed anew’, and thus her self-determination becomes an act of self-writing, and writing an act of magic.

She is not alone for long, however, as soon visitors come knocking at her door – some more welcome than others. Circe falls in love, is raped, bears a child, and falls in love again, and each twist in her tale is handled by Miller with an acute awareness of the trauma and the beauty of pain. 

Later in the novel, Circe observes her sister’s daughter, Ariadne, as she dances, beautiful and ignorant of suffering . She stops herself before she has the chance to say what she is thinking; ‘Whatever you do […] do not be too happy. It will bring down fire on your head.’ The passage comes as a moment of revelation. This is the danger of a happy ending laid bare. When reality fails you, as it does Circe countless times over, happiness is held up by circumstance, and likely to give at any moment. For Miller, and for Circe, happiness is an unstable thing, ever prone to disappoint and leave one lost in its wake. Sadness, and finding beauty in it, thus becomes a matter of survival. Hope, too, is dangerous for Circe. 

Yet it is Circe’s perspective as reluctant goddess that most truly charges the novel with its mournful air. Her immortality looms over the novel, not as a blessing, but a curse, making beauty seem transient and pain ever-lasting. Her first love, Glaucos, whom she transforms into a God only for him to choose another in her stead, leaves her with a pain as ‘sharp and as fierce as a blade through [her] chest’. ‘I thought I would die of such pain,’ she says, ‘But of course I could not die’, and it is therein that Circe’s tragedy, for much of the novel, lies. Death becomes sweet when it is the alternative to an eternity of suffering.

Similarly, her second love Daedalus, a mortal, is as soon lost to her as found, her memories of him being all ‘made of air’ and thus doomed to blow away from her like smoke on the night air. In her rendering of immortality Miller thus paradoxically captures the very essence of what it is to feel the pain of a mortal life, where all sorrow seems ever-lasting and all happiness wilts before it is fully bloomed. The immensity of immortality becomes a reflection of the intensity of mortality. It is an ingenious play on the subject matter, making the plight of an ancient goddess seem urgent and present. 

The novel is charged with imagery so startling and rich that it seems to colour the pages like a potion, dripping from line to line, oozing between them and giving them their potency. Startling similes abound, so exacting and lucid it is as if they are conjured from the subconscious, and have always been there. Miller’s is a voice preoccupied with the beauty of language, how it can be worked and re-formed into new and startling shapes. In this way, she is as much a worker of magic as Circe. As Daedalus, Circe’s lover, works beauty from a block of stone, so Miller transforms the language at her disposal into dazzling designs. A master of her craft, she is at the height of her powers. It is rare that such an intricately aestheticized prose-style remains consistent throughout, yet Miller never wavers. Always, she has one eye on the narrative, the other on its detail, and as a reader one feels always in safe, certain hands. 

Miller’s virtuosic yet ever-generous presence is this book’s greatest strength, and nowhere is it more greatly felt than in its final pages. In love again, and with a transformative potion to her lips, Circe conjures a vision of what she hopes the potion will grant her – a mortal life. It is not an especially happy one. In her vision she has grown old with Odysseys’ son, Telemachus, and she imagines he tells her ‘it will be alright’:

It is not the saying of an oracle or prophet. They are words you might speak to a child […] and somehow I am comforted. He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only: that we are here.

Thus, Miller gifts her reader an important lesson. That nothing is so sad that it does not deserve to be made beautiful. That making it beautiful is the only way to survive the sadness. That fear and pain and trauma cannot be escaped, or avoided. That confronting them as Miller does, and as the reader must in the novel, is the only way. Only through this, she suggests, can we know we are truly here, and be comfortable in the knowledge. Circe is thus a life-affirming testament to the healing power of feeling everything there is to feel unconditionally in beauty’s name. 

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