Circe, by Madeline Miller
In the retelling of a small story within the Greek classic The Odyssey, Madeline Miller explores the life of the witch Circe. This book is fiercely feminist, telling a story through the eyes of women who are left nearly entirely without a voice in the traditional tales. Not only is this book absolutely captivating and impossible to put down, it also dives deep into ideas of immortality and what it means to be a woman.
These retellings of Greek myths are such a great idea. Everyone loves Greek mythology, right? Even my kids love them, though they can be downright disturbing sometimes. But they are endlessly entertaining. We find the idea of immortals, of gods, to be so entertaining, which is somewhat counterintuitive, seeing as the gods considered humans their playthings.
Circe, a nymph born of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse. Although a divine being, in immortal terms she's kind of ugly and grating and nobody likes her. She's a bit useless and spends thousands of years being dumped on. Her brother Aaetes says it very succinctly: "What would an ugly nymph do in our halls? What is the worth of her life?" Without beauty, a nymph is nothing. Less than nothing.
Now, often when we are girls, the idea of being a nymph might sound enticing - to be forever young and beautiful. But to be a nymph in fact means an eternity of being nothing more than servants and playthings of men, divine though they are. A woman, or a nymph, must seek out her own power in the world.
"But a monster," he said, "she always has a place. She may have all the glory her teeth can snatch."
After thousands of years of being a joke, Circe very slowly steps into her power. She is a flawed character - her growth comes from a place of spite, of wanting, of jealousy.
Circe is a late bloomer. I 100% relate to her. In an abhorrent act, she transforms a rival for her love's affection into the terrible monster Scylla, a deed which haunts her through her very long lifetime. She is exiled in punishment, not for performing an act of evil, but for showing that she does have power. Greek gods did not like women with power.
"They do not care if you are good. They barely care if you are wicked. The only thing that makes them listen is power."
The men, and women, who seek glory endure, but they rarely find that which matters. I find that Odysseus is, I think rightly, not a very major character in the book at all. He moves the plot forward, and he is of course the reason for Circe's literary existence: she is the witch on whose island his crew falls after they flee the Cyclops, and she turns his crew to pigs. Then she and Odysseus become lovers for a season.
I have long disliked Odysseus because he is at the heart of it, a complete dick. In his quest for glory he leaves nothing but destruction behind him, all in the name of his own name. And who doesn't know Odysseus, even thousands of years later, one of the most enduring literary characters of all time: "Enduring Odysseus, he was, and the name was stitched into his skin. Whoever saw him must salute and say: There is a man who has seen the world. There is a captain with stories to tell." Yet at what cost comes his glory? His son, Telemachus, has wisdom his adventurous father could never know.
"All those years of pain and wandering. Why? For a moment's pride. He would rather be cursed by the gods than be No one."
Penelope is a fantastic character - careful, clever, certainly her husband's equal and then some, although he may not see it that way. "His contrivances defeated Troy and reshaped half the world. I contrived too. Which goats to breed with which, how to increase the harvest, where the fishermen could best cast their nets. Such were our pressing concerns on Ithaca."
The work that falls to a woman is not glorious, it is necessary. And the witchcraft which Circe creates comes from a place of willpower. This comes full circle as will is something a woman must need in abundance to be powerful. In these terms, Penelope is of course she is the rightful successor of Circe's legend, as she has the enduring spirit that encapsulates womanhood (and perhaps witchcraft), with her cleverness, her patience and her will to survive above all.
Another amazing character is Circe's sister Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur and owner of the best line in the entire book: "I fucked the sacred bull, all right?" I snorted out loud. I like that Miller shows the birth of Minotaur. It's one of those things about myths you kind of wonder about, the mechanics of all this bestiality. But as Circe helps to bring a monstrous creature to life, she connects for the first time with her sister, who sees them as similar. Circe did not realize that her sister, more talented and beautiful than she was, suffered as well. One of the reasons Pasiphae chose to become mother of monster was that it gave her power, a power she could use in the constant squabbling and power-grabs that is the upper echelons of divinity.
In the end, immortality proves itself to be a weakness, a burden, a curse, which is shown from the very first when Prometheus is chained to his eternal torment. The gods were crafty in their punishments, but I do wonder - does having one's liver eaten out of your body everyday eventually stop mattering?
Circe goes beyond cleverness, beyond power, and becomes the wise woman. She understands that which she has been craving: in order to truly live, one must die. In her most powerful act, she destroys a god ... by removing her own godhead. Her greatest act of defiance she leaves the hallowed halls of divinity to join the great mass of humanity, who are able to feel joy and true pleasure because their life is finite, and therefore all the sweeter.
This is a must-read for basically everyone. I loved it, it was a great read, but also delved deep into legends, myths, and what it means to be woman, and human.