Monday, April 6, 2020

Circe by Madeline Miller

Source of book: I own this. 

Circe was one of last year’s book selections for our book club. I was unable to attend that meeting (although my wife did), so I never got around to reading it. However, she convinced me that it was really good, and, since she bought a copy, I figured I would want to read it. In the meantime, our club read The Song of Achilles, the first book by Miller, which was quite enjoyable. The consensus of our club, however, was that Circe was even better. In what has to be an interesting coincidence, the club also read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood last year, so fully three of our twelve books were remixes of Greek mythology. I guess things go in cycles.

In any event, I can concur with the consensus that, of the three, Circe is the best. Fans of The Odyssey will be familiar with the Circe of mythology, of course. The daughter of the sun (aka Helios) is banished to the island of Aeaea (or Aiaia in the book - English spellings have been changed in the last few years, and I’m still not used to it…) for her experiments in sourcery. She is visited by Odysseus and his crew, but is outwitted by Odysseus with the assistance of Hermes. She sleeps with him, naturally, and (in later myths) bears him children. 

In addition to The Odyssey, Miller draws from a few episodes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, other myths, and fills in the rest of the story with some interesting alternate ideas of her own. The story is written from the point of view of Circe, and, like The Song of Achilles, imagines that the bards have been less than honest. Because history is generally written by the winners, so to speak, the characters who serve as foils to the heroes and gods are assigned base motives and painted as mere villains. Like Patroclus, the lover of Achilles, Circe functions in Homer’s legends as an episode, or at best a muse, in the life of the hero. 

As a nymph, Circe exists on the lesser level of godhood. She is descended from Helios, a Titan - not one of the Olympians - and is thus aligned with the older gods, including Prometheus. (Hey, I just read some great works about him!) She also lacks the power of either the true Titans or the Olympians. Basically, she is immortal, but has to get by on guile, seduction, or whatever she can find for herself. In her case, it is “sorcery,” a combination of botanical knowledge, a few spells, and a lot of will. 

Miller does take a few liberties with the backstory. Circe is allowed to participate in a few mythological episodes in which she isn’t mentioned in the classical myths. For example, she gives comfort to Prometheus, transforms Glaucus into a god, and assists in the birth (and imprisonment) of the Minotaur - the monster born to her sister Pasiphae. These incidents do serve to explain some of the other myths, like how Circe came to possess a loom crafted by Daedalus, and why she had a falling out with Scylla. 

One of the things I love about Miller is her ability to draw together the various myths and make them fit together for modern readers who were not, perhaps, raised in the Classical tradition. Here in the US, it is pretty rare for any of us to have learned Greek and Latin and read the ancients in the original languages. That was (and to a degree is) an artifact of the British upper class, and of a bygone era for the rest of us. In my case, at least I read this stuff in my teens and twenties - and own a Bulfinch’s Mythology for reference. (In addition to a few others - I have a well stocked library, shall we say.) But remembering all the family trees isn’t an easy thing. That is why I find Miller’s ability to weave the relationships into the story so seamlessly to be a delight. 

This book has, in my view, two major themes. The first is a feminist one. Circe is a nymph, a female demigoddess, which means her function in life (or whatever immortals call it) is to be pretty, marry well, and use her feminine wiles to her advantage. Which is pretty much how it is even for the Olympians other than Athena and Artemis, if you think about it. Even Hera pretty much exists to be the embodiment of the female heridan, endlessly jealous of the younger, nubile women that her randy husband is endlessly bonking and impregnating. Circe refuses to play the game, and naturally incurs the wrath of the patriarchal and petty gods. 

The other theme is the nature of humanity. Circe, like Prometheus, has a natural sympathy for mortals. She takes it one further in this book by looking with an honest eye at the advantages of mortality and the disadvantages of immortality. With immortality, there seems to be no real need for - or even possibility of - growth and change. By nature, the gods are everlasting, and their petty disputes and jealousies and obsessions are unchanging. It is mortals who, by very virtue of their limited lives, must seek to become something. In the classical Greek ethos, this was fame - the one way that mortals can gain immortality. 

In exploring the psyche of Circe, Miller looks at deeper (to our modern psyches) questions. Does the very transient nature of our lives as humans give us an impetus toward change and growth? Is the fact that our relationships - even the most permanent and timeless - are destined to end motivate us to form stronger bonds? Is the pain of having mortal children enough to make an immortal eschew immortality? (That last one is one of the interesting questions posed by Paradise Lost: would Adam have chosen immortality over Eve?) And, ultimately, is immortality boring? If all outside relationships are fleeting, because mortals die, is eternity just eternal ennui? 

These are some of the “imponderables” which we cannot stop pondering. 

The two themes together make for a compelling re-telling of a timeless story. Reading Homer through a 21st Century lens can be horrifying. The objectification of women, and the assumption that they exist to serve as foils to the male heroes is problematic, as my teens have informed me after reading parts of The Odyssey. And they are, to a degree, correct. But there is a reason that the myths endure. Part of that reason is that myths aren’t static. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Circe has fascinated writers for more than 2500 years for a reason. Some reactionary medieval theologians have used her as a warning against sorcery and female sexuality, but others have seen in Homer’s tale a warning against intoxication, or an example of an egalitarian pairing. All good myths combine timeless evocation of human nature and psychology with a flexibility and adaptability to new times and circumstances. This is how C. S. Lewis can transform the myth of Cupid and Psyche into a powerful and devastating work that spoke to my late grandmother (who I never met) and myself two generations apart. It is how Percy Bysshe Shelley can take the Prometheus myth and write a paean to the universal siblinghood of humankind, while his wife Mary can invent the genre of Science Fiction and warn of the dangers of technological prometheanism. It is why Antigone in the hands of Anne Carson can resonate so well today with the question of law versus ethics, conflicting duties, and fairness versus anarchy. This is why I love the classics even as I cringe at the misogyny and militarism. And also why I am endlessly frustrated by the stupidity and moral nihilism of a literalist and theonomist approach to that other example of ancient literature: the Hebrew scripture and the new testament. The truth of mythology doesn’t lie in its cultural specifics, but in its timeless adaptability to the truth of human nature as expressed across cultures and times. 

I really wish I had been able to participate in the discussion of this book - alas, I had a camping trip planned for that weekend. I imagine this would have been a fascinating discussion, based on our discussions of related books about mythology. 

Although there were plenty of great lines, there is one which particularly stood out as astute. Circe isn’t a true prophet, like some of the gods and mortals. But she has a sort of prophetic ability which shows itself throughout the book. Here is what she says about it:

Among the gods there are a few who have the gift of prophecy, the ability to peer into the murk and glimpse what fates will come. Not everything may be foreseen. Most gods and mortals have lives that are tied to nothing; they tangle and wend now here, now there, according to no set plan. But then there are those who wear their destinies like nooses, whose lives run straight as planks, however they try to twist. It is these that our prophets may see. 

This is so very true. As both an attorney and as a person who observes things, I have found I have an uncanny ability to predict marriages that will eventually fail (to use one example.) Just as Circe predicts that Jason will ultimately cast Medea aside, with catastrophic results, it isn’t that difficult to see cases where disaster is hanging around the necks of people I meet. Forget the fates: their own choices doom them to disaster. And, like Circe, there isn’t much I can do to change their destiny. This applies to clients, naturally, but also to friends and family all too often. As the old saw goes, your character becomes your destiny. 

Circe was definitely an interesting take on the old myths, with compelling characters, good writing, and thoughtful questions. I hope Miller takes on more myths in the future. 


It is impossible to discuss mythology without at least mentioning some amazing art it has inspired. Circe has been represented by many over the years, but the best must be John William Waterhouse, who painted not one, but two iconic depictions of the goddess. (In addition to his Greek myths, he painted Arthurian stuff - his Lady of Shallott has to be the best known of that legend.) 

 Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus is an amazing depiction. She dominates the picture, with Odysseus merely reflected in the mirror, a hesitant character to her supreme confidence. (And why not? She holds a potion in her glass, and one of his crewmen as a pig sits beside her feet.) The sheer garment teases at her nude figure, with her areolas visible and tempting. This picture fits far more with Miller’s portrayal of Circe as powerful, sexual, and not at all a stooge of Odysseus than Homer’s version. 

Equally moving is Circe Invidiosa, which portrays the moment when Circe, jealous of Scylla for stealing the affections of Glaucus, poisons the pool where she bathes. Again, what is barely visible - the transformation of Scylla under Circe’s feet - is part of the power. But it is Circe’s fierce expression which you can’t take your eyes off of. Waterhouse is fantastic at capturing the emotions of Circe in both pictures. 

Speaking of Scylla, and that whole thing with Gaucus, I have actually seen this picture in person. Laurent de La Hyre - Glaucus and Scylla. This one is at the Getty, which is one of our favorite places to visit. 


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

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