My old love of the classics and my fascination with Greek myths found new enthusiasm thanks to this book which offers a new perspective on the figure of Circe, or rather gives a convincing background for the deeds she is most known for. Daughter of the sun god Helios and the naiad Perse, she was the object of disdain among the other gods and goddesses because of her plain looks and human-sounding voice: her parents themselves favored her other siblings over her, condemning Circe to a life on the margins of such exalted company.
At first we see Circe as the proverbial wallflower, trying to fit in among her peers but always being the loner, but little by little a form of defiance comes to the surface, first by offering comfort to a tortured Prometeus, guilty of having gifted humanity with fire, and then by discovering and wielding her magical skills, for which she is banished forever to the island of Aiaia to live in perpetual solitude. And yet this is the moment when Circe truly starts to thrive, turning loneliness into the exercise of utter freedom and the chance to learn the herb lore and incantations for which she will become known. And to be her own woman, one who will ultimately be able to stand up to the gods, like mighty Athena, because Circe’s power is something gained through willpower and application and not something unthinkingly given at birth and taken for granted.
Myths have taught us that the gods of the Greek pantheon were fickle and cruel creatures, whose favorite pastime was to drive mortal men toward conflict or to seduce mortal women, but the gods portrayed in Circe go way beyond the depiction of legends and show all their heartless cruelty and mockery for humankind – or for their own kind when perceived as weak. Distance offers Circe this kind of understanding, the ability to see beyond the projected aura of glory and to find these beings wanting and ultimately contemptible, as she does when considering her own father’s attitude:
So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with one string, and the note it played was himself.
Circe’s banishment will not keep her isolated forever, though, and the story shows her meeting many of the figures of legend that have become household names, like Daedalus or Medea or Odysseus, whose sojourn on the island will mark a huge turning point for her growth as an individual. But before that happens, Circe will go through some harrowing experiences that will shape her into the figure passed on by myth: her infamous ability of transforming men into pigs has its roots into her gift of altering people by bringing their true nature to the surface – just as she did in the past by turning the cruel naiad Scylla into the monster of legend. The group of shipwrecked sailors Circe welcomes into her home first thank her for the help, but then they start to ask about “the man of the house”, so to speak, demanding to know where her husband, or father or brothers might be: learning she is alone they proceed to have their way with her, because the lack of male authority or protection just robbed her of any consideration or respect. When she retaliates by transforming them into pigs, she is just bringing their true nature to the surface.
By observing Circe’s myth from this angle – which some might define feminist – the author wants to offer a new point of view on these female figures from mythology, understanding that their portrayal has been constantly filtered through a male perspective, where women’s agency was seen as something dangerous: painting them as witches, monsters, or simply femmes fatales who instigated wars and ruin, must have been a way of giving a “safe” context to such exercises of freedom. Again Circe’s considerations come into play when she says that “humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets”, in a clear reference to the way Homer described her and others like her, by showing them as a danger to be overcome, an enemy to be brought down.
Here Circe’s dealings with Odysseus, during his long stay on Aiaia, stand on an equal footing – not the total submission sung by Homer – and although she comes to love him, she is never blind to his shortcomings or to the fact that love does not entail ownership – something she will learn the hard, painful way with their son, Telegonus. Motherhood is indeed the ultimate growth factor in Circe’s emotional and personal journey, because she finds herself dealing with a totally new experience without outside help or previous knowledge: her strength is put to the test through sleepless nights and fears for the child’s safety, concerns that any mother will certainly be able to relate to, as they will with the selfless dedication that brings her to create a magical shield over the island to keep him safe, one that exhausts her and yet is never acknowledged as such:
For sixteen years I had been holding up the sky, and he had not noticed.
In the end, Circe’s exile does not only separate her physically from her godlike peers and the toxic influence of the realm where she grew up, it distances her from their inability to grow through experience, or even suffering: such is the destiny of mortals, however, and in the end it’s through mortality that she achieves a sense of her own worth and of her place in the world. Madeline Miller’s novel did create a magnificent character out of the myth, and one that feels not only relatable but also real, the protagonist of a poignantly emotional journey.