"Circe": witch, woman, heroine, mortal, and divine
Circe, Madeline Miller’s book on the life of the Greek mythological witch, is a thing of joy. Not because it tells an easy tale, but because it brings the side character to the forefront. This enables Ms Miller, and the reader alongside, to reconsider the stories we grew up with, lessons we accepted as right from them, hidden modern problems which are not new but simply were ignored.
Circe, our protagonist, is shown as a bullied, psychologically abused child in the rarefied environment of divinities. Her own beauty, divinity and powers dampened by her shyness and lack of love, she is never considered enough, ever derided. It is only once she’s forcibly exiled to a deserted island that she can truly become herself. The process is not easy, with bouts of self-hatred, cruelty, self-delusion, or recurrent unhealthy relationships, in order for her to look beyond the accepted, to the truth.
Circe is a female bildungsroman that spans thousands of years, yet a perfect metaphor for our times of immediate gratification, mass-media, celeb-adoration. Even though the resulting woman may be imperfect and full of flaws, Circe has to learn to accept all of her experiences, all of her guilt, to take real control of her life. It is not beauty, adulation, wealth, power, eternal youth that make her strong. It is will, knowing her strengths and weaknesses, using pain to develop, that make her who she is.
Who would enjoy this
Circe is a joy for lovers of Greco-Roman mythology who want more from the tales. Most of the heroes and villains are mentioned, the main events revisited, in one way or another, except the focus has been shifted. It allows for new readings of the classics, new looks on the lives encountered.
For that matter, this is a good introduction to the Classics. By making it relatable to modern life, and modern narrative styles, it provides a quick view of the actions and social codes developed in the epics, without the weight of the ancient storytelling formats.
Finally, it is a great book for women, or readers who like a strong woman represented. The witch, the powerful independent woman, is de-vilified. The journey to self beyond appearances, strengthened. It would be a good gift to young women struggling with the onus placed on their identities by our society.
Who should give it a pass
Much as I may like this book, I understand it would still be a bad choice for those who dislike stories with many characters, or who prefer not having to track so many events. Circe is an easier read than the classics, but it is not an easy read altogether, since it does follow the path of Homer or Ovid.
Similarly, purists who support the moral teachings of the original tales may find this volume a bit irritating. The male heroes are not all that laudable, the supernatural is not that desirable, the women not just symbols of wifehood. This retelling, educational as it is, cannot be used as a straightforward set of impersonated values.
Conclusions and suggestions
Circe reveals Ms Miller’s deep knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology, as well as the questions of modern women’s views on female roles in life or literature. And it does so beautifully by, above all, loving her protagonist enough to let her err. By reversing expectations (the perfect divinities are the true monsters, cruel and emotionally dead), Ms Miller allows Circe’s true worth to blossom. It reminds the reader of the importance of being human, of the learning power of pain, of humility, of the overwhelming desire to live, to create, to will change. Circe, to use a very modern expression, “wins at life” because she keeps making mistakes, from which she learns.
I believe there is much to learn from Circe. That said, I would like to limit the items to 3 essential writing skills Mr Miller demonstrates throughout the story:
· Know, and love, your subject matter. This way, you will not feel driven to show off your research, but will let it appear naturally, like instants of recognition, throughout the narrative.
· Make it relevant. Circe, the witch who simply hated men and was bested by Odysseus, is no more; Circe, the woman who grows into her power, grubby hands and all, is in.
· Love your hero/heroine enough to allow them to be imperfect. This is a recurrent issue, and this book shows why it is so effective and important.