Monday, May 14, 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller: A review

Having long been captivated by the Greek myths that explain creation and how the universe works, how could I resist Madeline Miller's wonderful telling of them in Circe?

Her story reads like historical fiction and it is told in the manner of an autobiography in the voice of Circe herself.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of all the Titans. From the beginning, she was different from the other children of Titans. She did not possess the powers of her father nor the allure of her mother, and, strangely, she seems drawn to mortals for their companionship. In time, she discovers where her true power lies: She possesses the power of witchcraft by which she can change her rivals into monsters and can threaten the gods themselves.  

When Zeus realizes what Circe is, he demands her banishment. He and Helios arrive at an agreement on sending her to a deserted island of Aeaea. There, she tames the wolves and lions of the island and they become her companions. She hones her craft, learning the properties of all the herbs that grow on the island. 

Meanwhile, although the island is deserted, it does lie in the path of ships that ply the sea and Circe is sometimes visited by the sailors from these ships. The visits are not always benevolent and peaceful. When things turn violent, Circe avenges herself by turning the crews into pigs. One could argue that it was their nature all along.

During all this time, Circe crosses paths with many of the gods and goddesses as well. In the house of her father, she had met and interacted with Prometheus. Once on her island, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, often visits. At one point, she goes to Crete when Pasiphae, her sister and wife of King Midos, calls for her. Pasiphae, who is also a witch, needs her sister's help in delivering her baby. The baby turns out to be the Minotaur, and so we get the telling of that myth.

There, Circe also meets Daedalus and his son, Icarus, and we learn about the design and building of the Labyrinth as a structure to contain the fearful monster that was the Minotaur. Circe also relates the story of the wonderful wings built by Daedalus to facilitate escape for himself and his son and of the tragic mistake made by Icarus when he flew too close to the sun.

We meet Medea and Jason who visit Circe's island and we hear their story. Time and again the gods come calling and Circe is forced to either help them or to defend herself against them.

Finally, a ship of mortals anchors by her island. The crew comes ashore and their bad manners result in another porcine transformation. Then their captain comes ashore looking for them. It is Odysseus, making his way back to Ithaca after the Trojan War.

The attraction between Circe and Odysseus is instantaneous and when he leaves the island several months later she is pregnant with his child. The remainder of Circe's narrative details the events that follow from that fact.

I was enthralled by Madeline Miller's novel from its first paragraph. It was almost as if Circe had beguiled me with one of her spells. Miller weaves together with seeming effortlessness all the stories of the various gods and goddesses and the heroic humans with whom they interact so that, even if we are familiar with the myths and we know what is coming, we hang on every word of her retelling of them. In the end, this becomes the story of Circe's search for ultimate freedom from the constraints that bind her. That is something with which most of us can identify.

I have not read The Song of Achilles, but now I certainly will, and I hope there will be more retelling of the myths by Madeline Miller. Wonderful writer! Great stories!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars    

6 comments:

  1. It has taken more than a month for me to read (almost) all of it. I have some misgivings, and I haven't finished yet. I was blown away by the first half, then the porcine transformations started. Odysseus was a nice change of pace, but motherhood again was a chore to read about. I feel that I've taken so long to read the second half that I felt tempted to start the book again to see if I can recapture the magic, and I would if the blog could wait...To be fair, I have been distracted lately by the larger number of movies that I'm screening for my weekly feature; I supposed that could have played a role, still... Luckily, I have liked it enough to want to read The Song of Achiles, which I bought on sale on Amazon this month.

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    1. I read the book over a period of a few days and I was focused solely on that book - with breaks for gardening and baseball. That probably made a difference in my enjoyment of it, although I am so fascinated by the myths that perhaps distractions would not have mattered.

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    2. Oops! I take it back. ;-) Right at about the 85% mark I started reading continuously again and just like that the magic was back. Now I don't know if it was me or that there was a slump in the narrative from the 50%-85% range. I loved the ending! I'll be posting my review today sometime. :-)

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    3. I agree with you that the narrative did sag a bit in the middle, round about the time that Odysseus left the island. I look forward to your review.

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  2. I will be reading this very soon. I had mixed feeling about The Song of Achilles but since I have been reading the new translation of The Odyssey, I am looking forward to this one.

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    1. No doubt that reading The Odyssey again would inform the reading and enjoyment of this book.

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