Madeline Miller – Circe

“You are wise,” he said.

“If it is so,” I said, “it is only because I have been fool enough for a hundred lifetimes.”

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and nymph Perse. Because she is neither particularly beautiful, nor born with apparent godlike abilities, she is largely ignored by her family. She therefore seeks the company of humans, and falls in love with a fisherman. Since he is a regular person with a limited life span, and she a goddess with eternal life, she tries to persuade her grandmother, Tethys, to turn him into a god. Tethys will not be persuaded, so Circe finds a way to make him a God. The fisherman takes a liking to his new status as a god and he quickly understands that he doesn’t have to limit himself to a quiet life with Circe, and chooses another woman. To get revenge, Circe transforms this woman into a cruel monster, and when it comes to light that she is the culprit behind this transformation, her family realizes that she has the power of witchcraft. Such powers are unusual among the gods and they fear such abilities. For that reason, they punish Circe by banishing her to a deserted island where she is to live alone all her long life. After a while, though, she begins to get visitors.

But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.

We follow Circe from her upbringing and through the next 1000 years. On the island she finds friendship and love, but she also experiences abuse and becomes vengeful. She only gets permission to leave her island once to help her sister in labour, but otherwise she does not leave the island for a thousand years. She is a central figure in many stories from Greek mythology and through her we are introduced to gods and titans, to the minotaur, to Odyssevs and to a number of other creatures. It almost seems like Miller has sewn together a number of stories from Greek mythology and made them into a novel, and if that was her plan it has been executed brilliantly. It does not feel like she’s struggling to combine something that doesn’t naturally belong together. The story has a clear plot following Circe and tracking her evolution: a woman who becomes an outcast because she’s different, who isn’t pretty and talented, who’s ridiculed and mistreated, but who fights back, finds her place in the world and won’t let herself be broken. Despite the well-known backdrop, the story seems original.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

I am especially impressed with the character development in the book. Circe was a weak child seeking validation from everyone around her, without getting it. Being rejected by her first crush leads to a childish and vengeful reaction that shows she is not a particularly stable and strong woman at this point. She harbors the belief that at least her brother cares for her, but she gradually learns that her family cares for nothing but themselves. Therefore she develops a thick skin, doesn’t let anyone in, and even goes so far as to make a sport out of literally transforming men trying to exploit her into pigs. Eventually she meets people who seek out her company without an agenda who doesn’t mistreat her, which slowly teaches her to trust and get better at judging actions rather than pre-judging people. At the end of the book, she has become a good example of what a strong, confident woman can be. But it did take her a thousand years to get there. Although her elongated life span and her witchcraft doesn’t scream realism, I think the character development seems very realistic, and I like how the author always makes me understand why she is the way she is, even though I don’t always like her for it. Miller shows all sides of her, including those that are far from flattering.

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 only one string, and the note it played was himself.

“You have always been the worst of my children,” he said. “Be sure to not dishonor me.”

“I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.”

I read this novel during a particularly pleasant summer and I have to say that lounging in the sun and reading about Greek Mythology is a good mix. I’ll definitely be reading The Song of Achilles when we finally get a glimpse of summer again. Unfortunately, that might take a few years…

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