Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller, known for her award-winning debut novel The Song of Achilles, now her turns her classicist’s knowledge and her novelist’s invention to the story of the legendary titular witch in Circe, a figure likely primarily known to most modern readers from her appearance in the Odyssey of Homer. Miller, however, has taken her inspiration not only from that epic but from other classical sources, including but not limited to the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, the fragmentary and unattributed Telegony, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in order to create a more fully-fleshed version of a figure very often reduced to trope and cliché.

This Circe, daughter of the Titan Helios and a water nymph, is from her earliest years a misfit and a disappointment to both her parents, who are depicted as turbulent, uncaring to the point of cruelty, and overwhelmingly arrogant. Where most of the gods have voices of power, which announce their nature to any mortal who hears them, Circe has a mortal’s voice, softer and matching well her seeming lack of any godlike ability outside of immortality and quick healing. She has no part to play in the games and sports of the other gods, and no stomach for their cruelties; an early scene depicts her showing a small kindness to the disgraced Prometheus before that god is taken to endure his ultimate punishment. Even her other full siblings disdain her; and the more so when they begin to discover their own powers. The abilities of a full and high god, they do not have; instead, these children of Helios have a power which frightens even the gods themselves. Witchcraft, the use of herbs and will to effect changes upon the world to which even the gods are not immune.

And after Circe discovers her own powers and uses them to transform a rival nymph, Scylla, into a hideous and predatory monster, she becomes the scapegoat for her crueler and more ruthless siblings. By Zeus’s order, Circe is exiled to the island of Aiaia, never again to leave it without permission from the gods themselves. There, she at last begins to come into her own, learning the uses and limits of her witchcraft… learning, too, the pain of loneliness and a mistrust of men after her mortal’s voice lulls shipwrecked sailors into believing her only a woman, and thus a thing for them to take and use. Her habit of transforming such men into pigs is born in that moment, and only the coming of complicated and multifarious Odysseus breaks that set pattern.

While Odysseus’s idyll upon her island does take up a large portion of the book, there are other incidents – with her sister Pasiphae, mother to the Minotaur; with her niece Medea, also a witch and to be vilified for it; and with her son by Odysseus, Telegonus – which form a fuller portrait of the woman and the witch. 

This is a story which focuses not on the men in Circe’s life but upon the woman herself, her gender and her role in the society of gods and of mortals. More than that, it is a story about power, power in all its forms, about having power or being powerless, about abusing power and about finding it. While Circe herself takes some time to become a proactive character who owns her own identity and some readers may find her frustratingly passive in the earlier chapters, the overall arc is elegantly sculpted and Circe’s ultimate choices are both poetic in their appropriateness and surprising as well.

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