Read: May 2019
Author: Madeline Miller
Pages: 393 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child – not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power – the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
“Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts, and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
“But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.”
If you’ve been following us for a while, then you know how much I love mythology and history, and the Greek pantheon is one of the more well-known ones by which I am fascinated. But for years I avoided The Odyssey; I’d pick it up, swiftly be reminded what a slog it was to get through, and put it down again not long after. It wasn’t until a friend of mine mentioned that I was going into it like it was an assignment or project rather than the pre-television entertainment it was meant to be and suggested I give the audiobook as translated by Fagles a try that I really got what the whole fascination with The Odyssey was about. Combined with The Iliad (my fave of the two, actually), Homer created the Game of Thrones of its era, complete with incest, magical beings born of mortal women, adventure, war, sorcery, horror, heroes, villains, and triumph.
Let me rephrase. It was GoT without that shit ending.
Bold action and bold manner are not the same.
The Greek pantheon is vast and comes with its own lengthy, complicated, and ancient history which begins with the primordial deities born of the void, who eventually bring into existence the Titans, who bicker and fight with their parents and each other while bringing forth the Olympians which we are more familiar, who in turn will bicker and fight with their parents and each other over who will finally reign supreme. And after ten years, Zeus finally overthrows his father, the Titan Cronos, which is ironic considering Cronos had done the same to his own father, Uranus. And born into the ranks of the defeated, exiled Titans was the focus of our tale: Circe, daughter of the Sun and granddaughter of the Sea.
All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.
Circe’s past is an important part of her story and integral to understanding the decisions she makes, and Miller’s handling of that past is absolutely masterful. As stated, the Greek pantheon is complicated, but Miller does a fantastic job of conveying the sprawling relationships of the Titans and Olympians within the first few chapters of the story itself; Circe, one of countless numbers of half-breed children, stands out in this world of deities and monsters only for her lack of power and beauty – the qualities prized most of all among the fallen, plotting Titans. The fact that she is left to her own devices, pushed aside for siblings who shine brighter, makes her the perfect companion to get readers caught up on the history and relationships integral to her story; she is a witness but rarely a participant, and with her we passively wander the halls and beaches of her solitude while the gods celebrate and rage around her.
Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not.
Miller takes a page from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in her treatment of Scylla. In The Odyssey, Scylla is a sea monster which Circe advises Odysseus to avoid; however, in Ovid’s work, she was once a beautiful nymph, and her horrifying current form is the result of a potion brewed in jealousy by our girl C. But Miller takes us back a bit more to see the relationship these two women may have had before even that, to see why one man might have meant so little to one and so much to the other. Circe still makes a poor decision, but she is allowed to express her intense regret for it, and she pays for her hasty judgment and rash solution time and time again.
Witchcraft is nothing but such drudgery. Each herb must be found in its den, harvested at its time, grubbed up from the dirt, culled and stripped, washed and prepared. It must be handled this way, then that, to find out where its power lies. Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again.
For Homer, Odysseus was the hero of the tale while Circe was a warning: a group of men consume far too much wine than is good for them and are subsequently turned into pigs by a clever and beautiful witch. Their carefree abandonment and lack of caution then requires the hero to confront the witch, who, naturally, tries to seduce him with her feminine wiles. He outsmarts her with the help of an Olympian and so wins back his men and, naturally, the enchantress herself. This woman, alone on an island save for wolves and lions, possesses power over men and cannot, therefore, be trusted – at least, not until she is tamed; she stands in stark contrast to Odysseus’ faithful wife, Penelope, who rejected over a hundred suitors in the twenty years she waited for her husband to return from Troy.
But there was something in me that was sick of fear and awe, of gazing at the heavens and wondering what someone would allow me.
In Miller’s novel, Circe, though lonely, learns to be content on her distant island. She practices her craft, she minds her own business, and she swaps stories and companionship with the occasional godly visitor. But she is not safe. Besides the Titans she angered to initially earn her exile, she harbors a secret that would enrage the Olympians, not to mention that Odysseus’s ship is not the first to reach her shores. She didn’t waste the hard work it took to create her potions on his men on a whim, and she didn’t offer to use her body as a distraction only to melt into his bed when he proves to be above her seductions. Odysseus is as charming and philosophical as he is ruthless and brooding, and, for a while at least, their vision and strength is comparable. His world is one of violence and bloodshed, the prices of honor and glory, and Circe and her island provide the shelter he needs to recharge and regroup.
But he never intends to stay. And so, he eventually picks back up his quest and heads out to become a legend.
You can teach a viper to eat from your hands, but you cannot take away how much it likes to bite.
Penelope is given a subtle overhaul in Miller’s retelling. To the Greeks and Romans, Penelope was the epitome of female fidelity: she didn’t believe the masses when they told her her husband wasn’t returning, and she didn’t replace him with another man – she just kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting. It wasn’t until her husband returned and slaughtered her suitors that she was finally able to live happily ever after. Miller’s Penelope is a stoic woman whose strength simmers beneath a still surface. She waited for her husband, true, and she did not begrudge him his dalliances in the decades since he’d gone to war; they respected and loved each other, that much is clear. But after Odysseus is slain we find that Penelope was no meek, mousy wife: she was the only one to see her husband’s flaws, to speak to him of them and counsel him through them, and his death she lays firmly and rationally on his own shoulders. She is heartbroken at the loss of him, that much is clear. But also clear is the fact that she has been mourning the loss of Odysseus for much longer than the meager time since his life ended; her husband left her long ago to see his fame and glory, and he never quite returned.
I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.
To be honest, I was dreading Penelope’s appearance, worried that she would introduce an ultra-feminine humility to the novel that I just wasn’t in the mood for. But while very different from Circe, she is also quite similar: both women have spent a majority of their lives wrapped in solitude, trotted out only as pawns in someone else’s game, and in their isolation they have found strength.
Come, I would say to them, it’s not that bad. You should appreciate a pig’s advantages. Mud-slick and swift, they are hard to catch. Low to the ground, they cannot easily be knocked over. They are not like dogs, they do not need your love. They can thrive anywhere, on anything, scraps and trash. They look witless and dull, which lulls their enemies, but they are clever. They will remember your face. They never listened. The truth is, men make terrible pigs.
Miller’s Circe is an excellent retelling of a legendary epic through the eyes of a one-time antagonist. As a character, Circe is familiar and recognizable as her mythical self, yet she is given a level of freedom to express and explain herself that is purely modern. Her misdeeds are still present, but they beg the reader to take into consideration the matter of perspective – a senseless act to one might have a reason based off of experience to another, and one (wo)man’s hero is probably another (wo)man’s villain.
“War has always seemed to me a foolish choice for men. Whatever they win from it, they will have only a handful of years to enjoy before they die. More likely they will perish trying.”
I recommend this novel to anyone who loves Greek or ancient mythology and religions, especially those which stay fairly close to the ancient sources, such as Pauline Gedge, Helena P. Schrader, and Ki Longfellow. I’ve already bought Madeline Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, and plan to read that in the near future!
He would gather my weaknesses up and set them with the rest of his collection, alongside Achilles’ and Ajax’s. He kept them on his person as other men keep their knives.
And here are a few more quotes I liked:
When you are in Egypt, you worship Isis; when in Anatolia, you kill a lamb for Cybele. It does not trespass on your Athena still at home.
He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.
I loved his certainty, his world that was an easy place of right action divided sharply from wrong, of mistake and consequence, of monsters defeated. It was no world I knew, but I would live in it as long as he would let me.
“You do not grieve for your father?” “I do. I grieve that I never met the father everyone told me I had.”
“Let us consider,” I said, ” a boatload of sailors. Among them, some are undoubtedly worse than others. Some exult in rape and piracy, but others are newly come to it and scarcely have their beards. Some would never imagine robbery, except that their families are starving. Some feel shame after, some do it only because their captain commands it, and because they have the crowd of other men there, to hide among.” “And so,” he said, “which do you change, and which do you let go?” “I change them all,” I said, “[for] they have come to my house. Why should I care what is in their hearts?”
But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.
He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): Circe, Telemachus, and Penelope.
Elle read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
“However gold he shines, do not forget his fire.”
My father has never been able to imagine the world without him in it.
But the grudges of gods are as deathless as their flash, and on feast nights my uncles gathered close at my father’s side.
The thought was this: that all my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.
I tell Father that my sorcery was an accident, he pretends to believe me, and Zeus pretends to believe him, and so the world is balanced.
I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.
Yet because I knew nothing, nothing was beneath me.
“Wrong,” he said. “A happy man is too occupied with his life. He thinks he is beholden to no one. But make him shiver, kill his wife, cripple his child, then you will hear from him. He will starve his family for a month to buy you a pure-white yearling calf. If he can afford it, he will buy you a hundred.”
But I pressed his face into my mind, as seals are pressed in wax, so I could carry it with me.
But that was a young and silly thought: as if children are sacks of grain, to be substituted one for another.
Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.
It is youth’s gift not to feel its debts.
“It is strange to think of a goddess needing friends.” “All creatures that are not mad need them.”
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): No one in particular.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
No matter the mythology, there are many gods of folly. I will admit I was a horrible study of The Odyssey, and in truth, it made my eyes roll to the back of my head every time I picked it up for class. I don’t follow very much in the way of Greek mythology, I’m more of a Norse mythology girl. However, Circe allowed me a view from a Titan/Goddess point of view that had me asking what was next. Of course, I’ve heard of Helios, Daedalus, Icarus and a few others, but never really cared about their role in mythology.
I think we can all agree that we find that the gods are capricious and cruel, no matter what culture they represent. Circe finds this to be true, even though she has a familial bond to the gods. As the daughter of Helios, she doesn’t shine as bright as her father and all she wants to do is gain his respect and love. While she was not the prettiest of her siblings, she probably has the most beautiful soul amongst them. Her kindness and curiosity drives her encounter with Prometheus and to provide him comfort. Her kindness doesn’t stop with just the uncle she has never met, but when she meets Glaucus, she allows her curiosity and heart to lead her to help him become a more successful fisherman and then later an equally ungrateful god.
Ultimately, for Circe, it’s a matter of integrity and loyalty. No matter what she does, she always has the best of intentions. Even when she transformed Scylla, it was out of love for Glaucus that Circe allowed her jealousy to take the lead in her actions. Her actions throughout the book lent itself to almost a battered woman’s syndrome. No matter the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, siblings, lovers, etc., Circe always wanted to be kind and even her negative acts were out of love for someone else. She didn’t necessarily believe that she should be treated poorly, but it isn’t as if she demanded respect, love or kindness from any of them. It’s almost like she the woman who is repetitively finding herself in abusive relationships because that is all she knows. It is unfortunate, as she is a sympathetic character, and you find yourself rooting for her, but at the same time, I just wanted to smack her and say “SNAP OUT OF IT”. She is guilt-ridden throughout the novel and her loneliness only compounds the situation.
As for the remaining characters, Daedalus and Telemachus were my two favorite characters and are similarly situated as Circe. While they are human, they are also guilt-ridden and tormented by their existence. There wasn’t too much guile or presumption on their parts. They were actually reasonable and likeable characters. Much like Circe, each man is dealing with his own dire situation with as much dignity and responsibility as they can muster. Daedalus, as a prisoner of King Minos and Pasiphae of Crete, did their bidding as ethically as possible, while raising his son, Icarus. Daedalus was guilt-ridden for his actions or lack thereof when dealing with the psychotic and narcissistic pair. I think Daedalus and Circe try to remain as true to themselves as much as possible, while doing what is necessary.
Telemachus seems to be a blend of both Daedalus and Circe. He wants nothing more than to be his own man and not live in the shadow of his father Odysseus. He is not overly proud, and he does not desire the glory and fame as his father does. He wants a simple life and to be loved by his parents, to work with his hands and raise his animals. Telemachus does as he needs to save Penelope from her suitors, but he has no desire to be the pawn of gods.
Overall, the book is steeped in unreasonable expectations from authorities and parental figures. Take it a step further and there is abuse suffered by not only Circe, but anyone else who dares stand up to said authority figures. Overall, this is a well-done book of trauma, pain and triumph. I was enthralled from the word go and would gladly listen to this rendition again.
The audible performance was average. I was more impressed by the story than by the performance itself.
Lady Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Daedalus and Telemachus.
Esbe listened to the Audible edition of this selection, narrated by Perdita Weeks.
Narration of Audible Version: