Greek Mythology in the Spotlight: Circe by Madeline Miller, A Book Review

 ‘Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.’ In her novel Circe, nominated this year for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Miller takes this premise and goes on to tackle the oft-discussed issue of perception and marginalization by redeeming the enchantress Circe and bestowing upon her all of her previously unsung glory.

A Somewhat Different Perspective

By its nature, memory is highly deceptive. It eventually comes down to who’s telling the story and whose story it is. Miller’s novel starts off as a series of epic feats and references to well-known myths – Prometheus, Scylla and Charybdis, Hermes, Apollo, Athena, Daedalus and Icarus, Ariadne and the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Odysseus – retold from the first-person perspective of Circe and hence tinged with her own involvement in all of them. By showing Circe’s oft unmentioned role in all these myths, Miller refers to the blurred boundaries between memories, stories, and events.

‘The stories were still in me, vivid as when Odysseus had first told them, those thousand wily conspiracies and trials. Yet a strange thing happened when I began to recite them back to Telegonus. I found myself hesitating, omitting, altering. With my son’s face before me, their brutalities shone through as they never had before. What I had thought of as adventure now seemed blood-soaked and ugly. Even Odysseus himself seemed changed, callous instead of unflinching.’ 

By showing how unreliable the retelling of memories is, Miller undermines not only the story of Odysseus and his feats, but of all the myths referred to in the book. Circe’s narrative points out the bits and pieces omitted by the abovementioned poets, whose job was to praise the feats of the primarily male heroes whilst completely ignoring the other side of the coin. Furthermore, she goes on to challenge the perception of the gods themselves by portraying them as vain and vengeful. They are born endowed with numerous gifts, yet they use them for awe-inspiring acts of destruction: ‘destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters.’ The heroes are not much better. Odysseus is cruel and careless and Medea needs to soothe and manipulate the vain Jason who is ‘lost in the details of his own legend’. Her absurd meekness  ‘softened him. This was a more pleasing tale: the princess swooning at his feet, forswearing her cruel father to be with him.’

A Nymph, but Not a Victim

Different from her seemingly superior siblings, Circe gets bullied and neglected throughout her childhood and adolescence. She tries different approaches, but to no avail. Only later on, Pasiphae, her sister, reveals to her the underlying truth: ‘Let me tell you the truth about Helios and all the rest. They do not care if you are good. They barely care if you are wicked. The only thing that makes them listen is power. (…) They take what they want, and in return they give you only your own shackles.’

Circe is deemed ungainly since she does not look like other Helios’ children; she is not as shiny, her voice is human, not divine, she is the daughter of a nymph, and she is considered weak. Yet she possesses a skill that is feared by the Olympian gods, and hence, her one moment of weakness gets punished by eternal exile to Aiaia. She is not alone there for long. Disappointed fathers banish their nymph daughters to Aiaia as form of punishment, similar to a purgatory. Of course, it’s only girls that they send because ‘Sons were not punished.’ 

‘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.’

Miller’s story is distinctly feminist in its dealing with topics such as a girl’s coming-of-age, motherhood, and even rape, in a purely empowering context. Circe is a nymph, but she is nobody’s feast and she definitely does not try to run away, quite the opposite. The sailors trick her once but she does not end up victimized, she claims her revenge – ‘As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.’ Furthermore, Circe’s turning men into pigs is not represented as another obstacle on Odysseus’ glorious return home, but a necessary precaution and safety measure since neither her animals nor her divinity, which was obvious from her gold-tinged eyes, could protect her from flesh-hungry sailors. ‘I was alone and a woman, that was all that mattered.’ As a lonesome woman, she is perceived as fair game to anyone who happens to land on Aiaia since ‘If I were valuable to anyone, I would not be allowed to live alone.’

As she gets better acquainted with the world of mortals and its rules, she develops her spells and potions to protect herself more adequately. When the pigs repent and squeal their apologies, she knows that they are ‘Sorry you were caught, I said. Sorry that you thought I was weak, but you were wrong.’

The Emotional Life of a Woman

‘A moment, I thought, I only need one moment without his damp rage in my arms.’

Miller anchors her story in the woman’s coming-of-age narrative. Even though Circe is immortal and her life spans numerous human lives, she still goes through all the phases: adolescence, womanhood, finding a vocation, joys and loneliness of independence, motherhood, maturity, and by the end she makes the full circle and is ready to let go. She describes the torments that Circe goes through during her pregnancy, childbirth, and the first several years of her single motherhood. She goes through it alone driven by her immense willpower, despite her yearning for her customary loneliness on Aiaia:

 ‘I thought of all those hours I had spent working my spells, singing, weaving. I felt their loss like a limb torn away. I told myself I even missed turning men to pigs, for at least that I had been good at. I wanted to hurl him from me, but instead I marched on in that darkness with him, back and forth before the waves, and at every step I yearned for my old life.’

Later on, Circe learns to balance and let go, and in it she finds her strength and the means of her redemption for having turned Scylla into a monster. Her life of exile has allowed her to gain profound self-knowledge and she is finally ready to move on.  ‘It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.’ The novel ends with hope, love, and conciliation both with the world and, more especially, with herself.

© 2019 Erna Grcic 

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