AUTHOR: Madeline Miller
GENRE: Mythology and Folklore
PUBLISHED: August 5, 2014
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
The Odyssey is one of the cornerstone books of my childhood. For a majority of my life I had been told that I was a smart girl, but never that I was strong. So to read about Odysseus, whose prowess and success were defined not by his strength but by his cleverness, his smarts, was to find an archetype to whom I could finally relate.
But that connection is tenuous and imperfect for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that Odysseus is (technically speaking) a fictional character in an ancient epic poem, and I am a living, breathing person in the 21st century. Less obvious is that Odysseus is a man and I am a woman, and there are things that men can get away with that women cannot, things that men can say without repercussion but women cannot. It took me years to understand that latter set of reasons, and while I still like clever characters, I am now more sensitive to the ways that a woman can or cannot get away with her cleverness in comparison to the ways a man can do the same. And, just like any woman who is awakened to the systemic unfairness of misogyny, I realised my relationship with Odysseus is a lot more complicated than my ten-year-old self used to think.
Despite that, I still love what Odysseus represented to me as a child, and I still love the Odyssey. And it is because of that deep, abiding love that I kept an eager eye out for Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I snapped up as soon as it was released.
The novel is the story of (and is told by) the eponymous Circe, a character most famous for turning Odysseus’ men into pigs when they arrived on her island, before capitulating to Odysseus when he was able to resist her magic (thanks to some assistance from Athena via Hermes) and then helping him continue his voyage home to Ithaca. But so often the way a story is told is influenced by the teller, and in this novel, the reader sees Circe in a whole different light – one that also illumines what it means to be a woman, both in mythological ancient Greece and our contemporary times.
Some readers who are going into this for the first time might wonder: Is it necessary to have read the Odyssey before reading this book? Is it necessary to have read The Song of Achilles? To the latter I say: no, absolutely not. The reader need not have read The Song of Achilles at all to be able to enjoy Circe; the two are very distinct from each other despite the Homerian connection.
On the other hand, reading the Odyssey - and a majority of the Greek myths, for that matter - is necessary. To really understand what the author has done, to really, truly grasp just what has been accomplished with this novel, the reader needs to have more than just basic, passing knowledge. While it is not necessary to have a Classics degree, as deep an understanding and familiarity with the Greek myths as possible is vital to truly appreciate what this novel does. Otherwise, the takeaway will be equally shallow (as is apparently the case with some reviewers I’ve encountered). Take this excerpt, which is the novel’s opening paragraph:
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.
To anyone who has only the minimum necessary grasp of Greek mythology, this passage might not be significant: an explanation for Circe’s status amongst the many gods and immortals that populate the landscape of Greek myth. But for anyone who has spent enough time reading about the Greek myths, the revelation here goes much deeper. Nymphs are ubiquitous in Greek mythology – so ubiquitous, in fact, that almost every single character of importance ever mentioned in any of the stories has, at the very least, a nymph for a mother. So when Circe says that “nymph” and “bride” are the same thing, it says something about the status of the average woman, whether she be divine or mortal: a woman is a bride, and nothing more. This is illustrated by the following excerpt, which occurs nearer the novel’s halfway point:
Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.
This excerpt tells another truth that only readers with sufficient reading of the Greek myths will know: most nymphs are mere objects in the myths they feature in, meant for no other purpose than to be the paramour or wife or mother of some god or mortal man. Unlike the great goddesses like Hera and Aphrodite and Artemis and Athena, nymphs never have their own stories, and if they do, they do not tell them in their own voices.
The same can be said of Circe: her most famous role is the one she plays in the Odyssey, and though other stories were told about her by later writers, her story is juxtaposed against the stories of others, usually men: first against Odysseus, and then later her sons. The lost plays of Aeschylus, Ephippus of Athens, and Anaxilas might have given her a voice the same way Euripides did for Medea in the eponymous play, but they are gone. As far as we of the 21st century are concerned, Circe has not yet spoken for herself.
What this novel does, then, is to give Circe a voice, and in giving her a voice, it gives her a story – one that is distinct from the story Homer tells. In doing so, the author has broken away from the grip of the myths and included stories and details that are not commonly told. There is a good reason for that though, as Circe herself says:
… Humbling women seems to be a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.
In order to tell Circe’s story, it is necessary to break away from the stories already told – include them, yes, consider them, but the author is not bound to them. Circe’s story, it is true, is connected with and embedded in the greater matter of the Greek myths as a whole, but her thoughts, her opinions, are clearly her own. In writing Circe thus, and through her portraying the gods and heroes of Greek myth as she does, the author comments upon what it means to truly shape oneself, to become what one intends the self to be. It seems fitting, then, that since Circe is most known for works of transformation, of metamorphosis, this novel shows how those like Circe – those without power or agency of their own – can transform themselves in defiance of others.
But though such transformation is powerful and liberating, it is far, far from easy, as Circe herself makes clear:
Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It is 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. …
Witchcraft is nothing but drudgery. … So why did I not mind? Why did none of us mind?
…my answer is easy. For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little did not care to stay.
Then I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt.
Why do the hard work? Because, at the end of it all, it is worth it. To know the freedom that comes with being able to shape one’s reality as one pleases – that is worth any amount of blood, and pain, and toil.
Overall, Circe is a powerful read, one that reflects on what it means to shape oneself in defiance of overwhelming expectation and power. To do such a thing is to stake a claim to the self and gain a kind of power for oneself, but accomplishing such a thing is paid in the coin of pain and suffering and long, hard, grinding work. And yet, as Circe herself says, such a price is small, in comparison to the freedom to be what one wills the self to be. In the end, that is all anyone really wants, anyway: the power to shape oneself as one wills.