Circe - Madeline Miller
I am obsessed with the Ancient Greeks. As a philosopher I find them academically fascinating, and as a lover of stories I find their mythology enthralling. I remember my first dalliance with the myths of the Ancient Greeks was through an audio book I had on tape that I would listen to, between re-listening to Harry Potter over and over, before going to sleep. I can’t remember the name or the author of the tape (although I’m sure it still lives in the same drawer in my childhood bedroom), but I remember the exaggerated voice acting of the petulant, quarrelling gods. At the time I found it funny and entertaining, and looking back now I can see how my love for these stories was because of the apparent turbulence of the gods, their humanity, their flaws and imperfections. The benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent gods of the monotheistic religions never sat right with me, and I never really understood how one could benefit from them, even as symbolic or allegorical figures. I find it impossible to learn much from the all-good and all-powerful, because I myself will never be so, and neither will I ever come across another who is. But from the imperfect, often childish, and proud gods of the Greeks, I saw endless use – they were entertaining, yes, but they were also relatable (If I had magical powers I probably would have used them for personal gain occasionally too), and wonderfully endearing.
With that audiotape as my spring board, my love for Greek mythology continued throughout my life, especially the women of the tales. Obviously, Megara in the Disney Hercules was my queer awakening and honestly my soul mate/actually me, but it wasn’t just the sassy cynical Meg that imbedded these tales into my heart. As a stickler for the rules, and a now self-confessed party pooper, the often prudish and proper Hera, matriarch of the gods, was dear to me. The huntress Artemis, the lover Aphrodite, the soldier Athena, Sirens, Nymphs, Naiads – the myths contained to so many powerful female characters, but they weren’t just powerful. Ironically, considering they are gods, these women were often far more real than the female characters I was surrounded by in current stories and media – they were three dimensional, neither always hero, nor always villain; they were imperfect, jealous, vengeful, petty, shallow and histrionic, but also powerful, forgiving, loving, nurturing, bold and fearless.
However, despite the mythological existence of these strong female characters, the tales so often centred around a male protagonist, with the female characters orbiting their trial and tribulations. And, although Emily Wilson the first woman translator of Homer’s The Odyssey states that much of this is through errors and biases of male translators, the stories are riddled with sexism. Translation errors aside, the female characters of these myths are cheated on, raped, dismissed, portrayed as often more petty and shallow even than their male counterparts, and their perspectives are often left out of the story. We don’t see the story of Medusa through the eyes of a sexual assault survivor, but as the villain who turns men into stone. We don’t see Helen of Troy as a woman with agency and desires, but as a prize to be won and stolen. The rise of modern retellings of these myths, often with emphasis on the perspective of the women, was music to my soul. I decided to begin with Circe, the second Greek myth retelling by Madeline Miller.
Circe – Madeline Miller 3.5/5
Circe is a nymph and a daughter of the sun, the Titan Helios. Her family is powerful, so powerful that it shakes the confidence of the Olympian gods. Yet, teased and least loved by her family and peers, Circe is the odd one out - she speaks weakly, she does not shine like her siblings, and she displays no particular power, apart from perhaps the power of kindness, which is not taken as a strength by the shallow immortals around her. When Circe’s dangerous latent talent for witchcraft is discovered, she is thrown out of the halls of her father and isolated upon an island. Over the hundreds of years that she is marooned, Circe is visited by many travellers, some of which bring joy to her lonely life; most of which inflict pain, in one way or another. The story of Circe shows the development a woman whose life is marked and dictated by men who punish, use, abuse and, most importantly, underestimate her; it shows her developing her craft and using her power, first to harm others, and then to heal herself. It is a tale of womanhood, motherhood, loneliness and magic.
Miller’s second retelling of Greek mythology is a banquet for classics enthusiasts; weaving together stories from The Odyssey, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Ariadne and the Minotaur, Deadalus and Icarus and the torment of Prometheus. Yet it could be readily enjoyed by those with no knowledge of the stories at all. Updating the already relatable nature of the Greek myth for a modern audience, Miller’s story is so very human. Exploring themes of loneliness, jealousy, self-doubt, power, motherhood, love and lust; the emotions and power dynamics of Circe’s life reflect the same dynamics of modern life as a woman, just with more immortality and magic. The powerlessness that Circe feels as a woman, under the threat of gods and men alike, is so relatable that at times it is painful. But her strength is just an inspiring as her pain is heart-breaking. The discovery of her power at first makes her cold, invulnerable and dangerous, as so often is the case when we rally against oppression and trauma, yet slowly she finds her ultimate strength in her softness, her love and compassion, and her son. At times, the writing feels glossy and colour-saturated like a Hollywood blockbuster, the waves dance and the flowers glitter under Circe’s bare feet; yet at others is it morbidly bleak, leaving you feeling empty and alone.
I enjoyed Circe, yet I did not love it as much as I had anticipated. I think that maybe I had expected the modern retelling to be a bit more…modern? When entering the epic journey of a Greek myth, you expect it to meander, to sometimes focus on the mundane, to sometimes go on and on. I think I was expecting Circe to not do this so much. I didn’t feel particularly gripped by the story, and I often felt like it was dragging. The tale is a patchwork of many other smaller stories, spanning hundreds of fictional years, and it felt like it – a statement which can be perceived both as a positive, as the writing is able to accurately convey the span of time in the life of an immortal; and also as a negative, as it felt like I was constantly having to push through to get to the end. I personally think that the book would have benefitted from the omission of maybe a couple of the tales it includes, as I don’t think that all of them contributed significantly to character progression. However, I also acknowledge that to more ardent readers of Greek Mythology, rather than the casual lover of it which I count myself, the woven tapestry of interlinking familiar tales will be relished, and to omit even one would be to detract. My middling rating of this book is therefore a very personal one, based on my preference of style, and my impatience. I really loved the portrayal of female experience, and the seizing of personal power, as well as the competing drives to be alone, yet also to be loved. I would recommend this book, and I think that I will read it again in the future, without my preconceived ideas, and will probably enjoy it more than I did this time around.