‘Circe‘ by Madeline Miller was published in 2018 and garnered rave reviews for retelling the story of vicious sorceress Circe from ‘The Odyssey’.
I have not read Miller’s first book, the acclaimed ‘The Song of Achilles’, the retelling of Homer’s Illiad. Nonetheless, I had to read ‘Circe’ for all the wonderful reviews it received in last one year. It is indeed wonderful to see ‘The Odyssey’ coming alive through the eyes of one of its most vilified characters – Circe.
“I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
This portrayal of Circe (in her own words) sets the tone for the book. Madeline Miller carefully weaves the modern understanding of relationships, the concept of feminism and the unwarranted glorification of the male protagonist in this retelling.
In ‘Circe‘, you begin to understand Circe more closely. The unworthy daughter of Helios and Perse, deemed ugly by divine standards and born without any powers transforms into a heroic character. You fall in love with Circe, the one who isn’t loved or acknowledged by her parents or the extended family of the Gods and Goddesses. Miller graphs Circe’s character from that of a victim to an independent, powerful woman.
In ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer, Circe is introduced in Book X as a cunning Goddess, daughter of Perse, when Ulysses and his men reach Aeaean Island. On reaching the island, Ulysses finds wild mountain wolves and lions bewitched by Circe, prowling all around her.
Circe could sing beautifully and weave the finest clothes at her loom (like the Goddesses hence not an acquired quality). According to Homer, the evil enchantress turned men into pigs with her wand and took men to her bed to ‘unman’ them. Ulysses had to be protected from Circe by the Gods to ensure his safe return to Ithaca. This is Circe’s curtailed role in Homer’s epic saga.
What Madeline Miller does – is dissect each of Circe’s attributes from ‘The Odyssey’ and give reason to it. If Circe is an evil, enchantress as Hermes, the messenger of Gods proclaims to Ulysses – then what made a Goddess turn bad, living alone in an isolated island?
In Circe, Madeline Miller proposes an alternate theory where Gods are conniving and negative: creating monsters, disasters and wars to secure reverence from human beings. Humans, on the other hand, work hard towards building things with their own hands. This is juxtaposed to what Homer writes in ‘The Odyssey’, ‘See now, how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all nothing but their own folly’. Zeus never admired Circe’s truthfulness. There is glee in the Gods to see monsters being created for when Scylla is created or Minataur is born. Circe with her human-like qualities wants to turn back the evil done to Scylla, the six-headed monster by her and is guilt-ridden for her doing.
Miller begins the book with Circe’s birth, her childhood in the palace of the Gods. Circe’s name means ‘Hawk’ for she is born with yellow eyes and human voice (that none of the Gods ever wanted to hear). She grows up lonely, neglected and mocked by her siblings. Her first solace is in Aeetes, her brother who later leaves her. Then comes Glaucus, a fisherman for whom Circe goes a great deal. And, yet, she receives nothing but defeat. It is the love for a mortal that leads Circe on the path of ‘pharmaka’ – using magical herbs and spells to master sorcery.
Circe is banished to Aiaia Island by Zeus for ever and without resentment from Helios, her father for her witchcraft. Even though Circe is a Goddess, daughter of Sun God, an accomplished sorceress, she is still a woman, without a husband or a son or a father to protect her in an isolated island. In this poignant state, Miller brings Circe’s power to turn men into pigs.
Circe is a woman on a journey to find her true potential. There was an instance when Circe tried to strike herself with her uncle’s dagger to see if she had the immunity of the Gods, but instead, the blade cut through her skin. She works hard at developing her skills and stays honest, truthful and just.
‘The thought was this: that all my life had been murk and depths, but I was not part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.’
The portrayal of Circe and Pasiphae as sisters is one of the brightest examples of an honest representation of sour sibling relations. Pasiphae is the beautiful, preferred daughter of the parents and an extremely selfish being. At one point, after helping Pasiphea from difficult child delivery, Circe realizes how her sister could have asked anyone to help, ‘but I had always been the dog she liked to whip.’
The exile in Aiaia Island is the turning point in Circe’s life, she becomes herself, the Goddess wielding the power to control beasts, cast magical spells and foresee prophecy. Ulysses arrives with his men on this island and we know the ‘The Odyssey’ version of what happens but Miller provides her balanced perspective.
‘On a hilltop before me was a house, wide porched, its walls built from finely fitted stone, its doors carved half again the height of a man. A little below stretched a hem of forests, and beyond that a glimpse of the sea.’
I can put the entire book aside for the section on Circe’s motherhood. I was with Circe reliving each moment taking care of her newborn. It was so refreshing and reassuring to read the personal account of a Goddess on embracing motherhood. The Goddess, who had lived for a thousand years, felt her son, Telegonus’ childhood was much longer as compared to her lifetime! There are such wonderful moments spun around as Circe expects her son to start to talk, walk and trying to protect him from getting hurt. All this, amidst the gargantuan task of safeguarding her son’s life from Minerva through witchcraft.
“Thank the gods I did not have to sleep. Every minute I must wash and boil and clean and scrub and put to soak. Yet how could I do that, when every minute he also needed something, food, change and sleep?”
And, against this image of a dedicated mother in Circe, there is Ulysses, the father who left his son in Ithaca to fight the war. The book is packed with such subtleties bringing forth the prejudices in our perception of male and female characters.
When Circe, the Goddess of the wild and an enchantress, a rather minor character from ‘The Odyssey’ gets her own book, she comes across as a self-made woman, living alone, raising her son and finding companionship on her own terms. ‘I had a little pride, as I have said, and that was good. More would have been fatal.’ And, you realize that the vilified enchantress becomes more relatable to you than Penelope or Helen.
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