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Novel Takes: Circe by Madeline Miller

By Linda Ulleseit
September 4, 2020

 

My house, my lions, my magical housekeepers. You don’t like it, I’ll turn you into pigs. And I’m not a vegetarian.

I last read The Odyssey and The Iliad in high school, which is a long, well, never mind, it isn’t important. Suffice to say, it has been awhile, but I still have impressions from those first reads so long ago. Namely, that I did not really care for “wily Odysseus.”

But of course, both of those narratives are hero stories, and Odysseus is the hero, so even though I wasn’t a fan, I was stuck in AP English reading about a real jerk who gets mad that the woman who hasn’t heard from him in twenty years has wannabe boyfriends.

Circe by Madeline Miller is about one of the women Odysseus encounters and “woos” during his misadventure. In The Odyssey, Circe is called a “sea witch,” and turns Odysseus’ men into pigs (I remember that part vividly from high school, because I could think of some boys I wouldn’t have minded turning into pigs).

But in this retelling, Circe gets an epic tale of her own. She is the daughter of the sun god and an ocean nymph, and is thus gifted with immortality. The problem is, nobody likes her, and she can’t figure out why. She’s ignored by the larger cohort of her extended family, and in the tradition of ancient gods, they are self-absorbed and petty. It’s like the worst experience of high school, and you can never leave.

Her mother has other children, a set of twins, and then a younger brother whom she adores. As her brother grows up and becomes more powerful, he leaves her, going out into the wider world. Circe is heartbroken, and she ends up finding a mortal to lavish her attentions upon. She hears of some herbs that could turn her mortal beloved into a god, and against everyone’s better judgment, she does so. The mortal is amazed, overlooking Circe’s possible involvement in his transformation—like, lalala, I’m just a fisherman who happens upon this immortal god but she can’t possibly be why I’ve turned into a god myself—and joins her family in their great hall. But now, immortal and powerful, why would he choose Circe as a wife? Instead he turns his attentions to yet another nymph, roundly agreed to be the most beautiful. Circe, in a fit of jealous rage, finds more of that transforming herb, and turns the nymph into a monster. Not just any monster, but Scylla, the monster with massive tentacles, nesting rows of shark teeth, and who lives in the straits and seizes passing ships (I know, I know, side note much? But it figures later in the novel).

But Circe’s family is flabbergasted. How did this beautiful nymph transform? Once again overlooked, Circe owns up to her misdeeds—the fisherman turning immortal, the nymph becoming Scylla. Her all-powerful father scorns her, condemning Circe as annoying, weak, and decidedly ungodlike. Finally, he banishes her to an island.

It is there, on her solitary island that she begins her life as an enchantress, a powerful sorceress, a woman who is not be trifled with.

But it isn’t like this behavior comes from nowhere. Circe breaks the rules consistently throughout the story, even before the island, but the transgressions are small in ways that no one notices. Her character is persistent and dogged, with a belief in her own version of right. She stays to her own moral code, realizing that many of her actions will garner scorn from the other gods, or sometimes, their wrath, but she does what she must.

Do all my laundry! Conjure more wine!

She falls in love with mortal men—more than just Odysseus—which allows her to see the beauty in a story that is finite. The gift of immortality is also its curse. And she realizes that the difference between her and her family is that as gods, they do not have to change. But she required change, as her “youth” was so fraught. Yet her origin story is not one of external trauma like most superheroes, but rather a story of personal internal trauma. She is hurt, abused, and discarded.  The island is a punishment, but it is also freedom in its own way: she begins to understand not just her extended and immediate family, but herself and her own power. She needed to be away from their perception of her in order to grow, become herself, and love what she found.

After this read, I felt like Virginia Woolf’s exhortation of having a Room of One’s Own wasn’t enough: I need an island of my own, complete with magical cupboards that replenish themselves, fires that stoke themselves, and laundry that resets daily. All joking aside, this is an engaging read, and can be read by anyone—opinions on Odysseus notwithstanding. The book can have you spiraling down encyclopedia entries with all its mythological references, or you can skim right past and continue on with the novel. Either approach works.

The author, Madeline Miller was a teacher of Latin and Greek. Her previous book, Song of Achilles, was also well-received. And for anyone who doesn’t like to read (so why are you here?), HBO has green-lit an 8-part miniseries based on her telling of Circe.

 

Highly recommended.

Linda Ulleseit
Written by Linda Ulleseit

Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).

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