April 16th, 2018

book talk // circe.

“Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself, the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

Circe by Madeline Miller is a feminist retelling of an ancient story. For most readers, The Odyssey was taught in freshman English class, and that’s where it has stayed; but, for a freshman English teacher (namely, me) the epic poem takes up my whole world for at least six weeks every year. And, excitingly, this past year has been a big one for the Greek epic, both with the release of Circe and Emily Wilson’s new, and first ever female translation of The Odyssey. Wilson describes Circe as, “the goddess who speaks in human tongues,” a phrase that resonates within Miller’s own work, as Circe is often criticized by the gods for her squawking, mortal voice.  On the other hand, her voice is the very thing that makes her an accessible goddess, she is already more human than the rest.

There are no spoilers here — we have known the outcome for centuries — but the lush rendering by Miller creates everything anew. Aeaea is reborn as a utopia of flora and fauna, both tamed and wild. Circe braids back her hair, hikes up her skirts, and makes use of the endless time inherent in her immortality to learn the spells of witchcraft already lingering in her blood. Miller weaves Grecian myths together as though she is Penelope at her loom — we hardly notice that millenia have passed. We bear witness to the creation of the Minotaur, to Icarus and his wings, to Medea, to whom Circe attempts to provide advice (it doesn’t go well), and we discover the fate of Odysseus after he returns to Ithaca.

It also dissects the dichotomy of the witch / goddess archetype that has always embodied her characterization. Witch, a word with a typically negative connotation, has often been ascribed to Circe and her pig spell, to the Moly that stops it, to her animal taming. But, she is still a goddess, beautiful and seductive and filled with divine power beyond the comprehension of mortals. A female character can indeed be both, she can be flawed and compassionate and empowered by her beauty.

Circe is a novel of femininity, sisterhood, and a woman’s search for independence in a time where men were heroes and gods ruled your fate. Can one gain the ability to alter one’s destiny by force of will? Or must one always submit to the gods? As Circe later tells Penelope, witchcraft is “mostly will.” And with that willpower, a woman can change her destiny.

“You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you.”

Truly, this is one of the best books I have read this year — it may have already taken my number one spot. I could talk about it for ages and if you happen to see me anytime soon, I will undoubtedly be recommending it to you.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: fans of Greek mythology or re-tellings of old stories.