Edition Published: 2018, First Published: 2018
Language book read in: English
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Greek Mythology. On one hand, I’ve always been interested in stories about heroes, magical creatures, and adventures. On the other, most, if not all, of the characters in Greek mythology are all-mighty, none can be beaten, none can be bested. This irritated me. If all of them are all-mighty, then none of them are, none of them possess any divinity. They are just your average Joe with a special talent in something, albeit it being in conjuring lightning, or controlling fire or water.
I do remember asking my mum about this and she told me to look more at the character’s motivations and how each of them represents a powerful emotion. Reading the Greek myths in this way is like reading a manual for emotional intelligence. For example, what will happen if you mix wrath and pride? Definitely something destructive.
When Vel suggested reading Circe by Madeline Miller, I thought about my first encounters with Greek mythology and decided to give it a second chance by reading the book. After all, I was 8 or 9 when I first tried to make sense of the stories. Unfortunately, I don’t think reading Circe did much for me this time either.
Madeline Miller retells the legend about Circe, daughter of Helios and witch of Aiaia (Aeaea). She was banished by her father to live in isolation on the island of Aiaia, where she hones her skills in witchcraft, while her brothers and sisters rule over kingdoms. On occasion, she meets gods, people and mythical creatures, but Circe mostly remains on her island and self-reflects: about her current circumstances, about loneliness, about witchcraft, about divinity, about immortality and life without any consequences.
There isn’t much surviving information about Circe in ancient texts, therefore what little there is can become a very interesting writing prompt: These are the characters, this is what happened, now tell me why did it happen the way it did? I think Miller lost her way at some point while thinking about what she should do with the available information.
Why Didn’t Circe Meet My Expectations
I think I should start with two very important disclaimers:
- This is the first book by Madeline Miller I read
- I did start reading Circe with some assumptions or rather, hopes, regarding the plot
Expectations can be a double-edged sword if you set them too high. Nevertheless, I tried to steer away from what my own hopes for the book were, and just enjoy the book the way Miller intended it to be.
There are some minor spoilers ahead, so read with caution!
This was the first thing that threw me off as I progressed with the story. I believe it may have been a writing technique on Miller’s part to represent Circe’s feelings of isolation and depression. I empathise with Circe’s upbringing – she was neglected most of the time, because her father could always have another child he can trade for favours and her mother is only interested in her own social status among other nymphs. Circe’s siblings follow in her parent’s steps, because they had learned from an young age that everyone is the enemy and no familial connection is worth all of the riches in the world.
I even empathised with Circe once she was banished to Aiaia and started feeling the full weight of her loneliness, which manifested itself into a full-blown panic attack during the first night on the island. I thought this would be the turning point and Circe would begin healing through witchcraft, however, the pace of the narrative remained the same. The short telegraphic sentences only helped the narrative seem devoid of the emotions I was expecting from the Circe, with a few exceptions.
A third of the book deals with Circe’s upbringing and the dynamics of her large family of gods, nymphs and demigods. The detailed description of her siblings, Aeëtes, Pasiphaë, and Perses, and their abilities to raise the dead, brew powerful poisons and give birth to monstrous demi-gods led me to believe these would play a bigger role in the following chapters. Circe has only one meeting with Pasiphaë and Aeëtes (at different times), which helps the witch of Aiaia reach more conclusions about herself, but there are no major consequences for Circe or the story. I hoped the legend of her siblings would be more intertwined with that of Circe and their deeds would reach her or involve her in some way despite her banishment. Merely hearing stories of how her siblings develop their skills strengthen the feeling of isolation, but do nothing else for the narrative.
I also hoped Circe’s meeting with Prometheus would developed further rather than become a bargaining chip at the end of the book to tie some loose knots. I think if the book was shorter, then the narrative wouldn’t be as slow and drawn out. But I guess you need to live a few centuries and make a few mistakes, in order to find peace.
The main reason I think Miller lost her way while writing Circe’s story is the attempt to make Circe a feminist character. The witch of Aiaia manages to defy all odds and turn her banishment into her solace. She helps anyone who may need help, because she has a deep desire to mend torn things. She is strong, powerful and loving. However, at the same time when she suffers abuse at the hands of sailors, she does not retreat to mend herself, but rather lashes out by attracting the men who land on the shores of Aiaia and turning them into pigs for her own amusement.
It did strike me as odd that she did not show such a strong emotion while she was being abused by her kin, but when mortals attacked her, she reacted in an extremely violent manner. Being abused is no laughing matter, but Circe’s actions were contradicting her personal growth. Of course, everyone has setbacks in life, but considering Circe is an immortal with a few centuries of wisdom under her belt, I thought she should’ve reacted in a different way.
Another thing I couldn’t relate to was the way 90% of her encounters with men on the island somehow led to sex. Feeling like someone might betray you? Have sex. Feeling down? Have sex. Feeling like you need to have an advantage in a potential attack? Have sex. Apparently, it’s that simple. Physical intimacy can be used for many things, including healing. However there are other coping mechanisms which can be beneficial in the long term.
The story of Circe is interesting, but I think Miller missed a few opportunities to make the narrative even more engaging and impactful. Several themes steer the story in a certain direction, however I do not think each of them necessarily compliments the other perfectly. If you love reading books about Greek mythology or self-reflection then Circe is for you. I know it was not my cup of tea this time.
Greek mythology was a big part of the school curriculum when I was in middle and high school. We had to slob through the Odyssey and Iliad, to keep track of a myriad of deities in collections of myths, and then deliver a mixture of creative essays or discussion reports on a random part from any one text. It was daunting, and one of my least favourite parts of my literature schooling. I did, on occasion, attempt to read Greek myths for pleasure, and always recoiled from them unsatisfied and disappointed. There was plenty of drama there, fairly diverse plots, but what was lacking for me were likable characters. All the heroes were heroic and nothing else. All the villains were villainous and nothing else. The stereotypic characters and personas were maddening, their sameness and glorified features off putting. I did not fit amongst them, so I reached a likely conclusion – Greek mythology was not for me.
I came across Circe when the book was nominated for a Goodreads award and the cover appealed to me greatly. I hesitated though, I had my prejudices and had not attempted to pick up anything Greek since my teens, so I did not go for the book right away. Even after I purchased it from a book store – the cover completely won me over that time – it stayed on my shelf for a long time before I picked it up. This was in part because I had other books to catch up on, as well as due to my ongoing gripe with my memories of reading Greek myths years prior. When I did start it, I was happy I had nothing else on the side so I could sink into the world of Circe.
The author has managed to breathe life into the one-sided Greek characters masterfully. There was now good and bad in each one, the heroes felt fear and rejection, the villains had suffered much to exercise cruelty as they did. As an overview – I perceived the gods as aristocracy – the rich, arrogant, selfish temperamental and bored select few at the top of society. Little warmth is to be found for one who is not gifted with some outstanding quality, or in the words of Circe – destined to. I could not relate to her growing up in the house of a god – I know, right – but I could easily relate to her desire to please, yet believing she is completely unremarkable and undeserving for her lack of luster. Her upbringing was cold and cruel, her brother being her solace for a time, and he took more than he gave. Rather than becoming cruel and vile, she withdrew inward, and looked for something else. In my withdraw from the outer world I found books; Circe found a fisherman – and through him – witchcraft.
The book has a rhythm, a pace slower perhaps than what many would appreciate, but the quiet I found in this book felt nourishing. There was time for connections to develop, for thoughts to form, for feeling to be analysed. I would rather not rob any of you from experiencing the book’s flow, so I would like to restrain myself from analysing the plot further. I will discuss, however, two topics which have been surfacing in my mind fairly frequently throughout my life, the first one being immortality and the second, witchcraft.
If one is immortal, there is little need for one to change. Being adaptable, facing challenges, starting over – these are hurdles of a mortal life. There is no danger of death, no judgement day, no facing your God, or the great unknown. Life is all there is, and all can quickly become boring. Entertainment becomes anything which is different, regardless of how cruel, drastic and forced it becomes, and there is always need for more entertainment.
On this point, the cover missells Circe in my opinion, it states the main character needs to make a choice of loosing her immortality because of her love for humanity, yet Circe herself does not really love humanity as a whole – she gets burned more than once by humans, but she finds those select few who make life worth living.
The idea of witchcraft in Circe appealed to me greatly, mostly because it was not a gift from the gods, or a talent which needs no work to be impactful. Instead, it was a skill to be explored, developed and nourished. As an immortal and as an exile, Circe finds the time she needs to practice and hone her craft through trial and error. Witchcraft is a learning process – of discovering the power of plants, speech and nature cycles, but also of oneself. I felt distinctly jealous of the ages Circe had available to her to work her craft, as well as guilt – there have been a few periods in my life of relative quietude during which I could have built up on any of my hobbies (arts, crafts, writing, and so many others), yet was passive and procrastinated.
The power of witchcraft in this context fits the character of Circe well, it is slow and methodical, like herself, but once determined on a path to take it becomes a force to be respected and even feared. I also loved how Circe shares her knowledge with others, rather than hoarding it for herself. Once she finds a worthy successor, she leaves her chosen to be the witch of the isle, and moves on with life. To move on is a skill often underestimated, it involves a great deal of change, and this is ultimately the point at which Circe makes her choice – immortality and immutability, or frailty and adaptability.
I am not ashamed to say I wept towards the end of the book from an emotion difficult to pinpoint – it was neither sadness, or joy. It was something closer to relief, mixed with reassurance, and a sense of being at peace. In the face of all the unknown, in a less than ideal world, despite all the illnesses, poverty, misery, gods and fates, being with someone close to you who says ‘it will be ok’, not as a prophecy or a certainty, is sometimes all it takes to belong. That, and witchcraft.