Circe, a goddess in context

I read Circe, by Madeline Miller.  It’s good.  I also read Miller’s previous book, Song of Achilles.  It’s good, too.

I found both books browsing in Bookpeople.  I was studying the tables of new and popular books when I found them.  I had just finished rereading the Odyssey, so Song of Achillescaught my eye.  I picked it up, read the back cover copy, and put it back down.  Then, I saw Circe. Hmm.  I picked it up and read the back cover.  Okay.  I held onto it.  It took me several minutes to find Song of Achilles again, but I did.  I bought them both.

These are the only two novels Miller has written so far.  I don’t know if she is going to keep mining this vein of Greek mythology. I hope so.

Just to review, Greek mythology was created or at least told by the oral poets of ancient Greece beginning about 3,800 years ago, during the Bronze Age.  The Greek poet Homer wrote the Iliadabout the Trojan War, which was said to occur about 3200 years ago.  Achilles was a hero of the Iliad.  Homer wrote the Odyssey, about the heroic voyages of Odysseus after the war.  Circe was a goddess who played a role in the Odyssey.

My eye fell on the Odysseylate one night when I was perusing my bookshelves for something to read.  It was right next to the Iliad.  I don’t think I’ve read either one since my twenties.  I’ve kept them all these years, just for that night.

To be a good student, I should have picked up the Iliad first, since it comes first in the story.  But, I really didn’t want to read a war story.  I wanted to read the Odyssey,the story about a worthy man buffeted by the gods and the elements and weak companions, true to his journey, determined to reach his goal.  That’s sort of how I’m feeling, these days.

It’s a fantastic adventure story.  It begins at the end of the Trojan War, with the victorious Greeks making sail for home.  Odysseus has already been away from home for ten years fighting that war.  Because he has angered certain of the gods, he is doomed to wander for another ten years on the wine-dark sea, buffeted by tempests and emboldened by rosy-fingered dawns.  He encounters incredible monsters, seductive temptresses, mortal dangers, and sumptuous banquets.

Circe is a goddess and a sorceress, living on an island in the wine-dark sea.  Odysseus lands his craft on the shore and sends his crewmembers to scout the land.  They offend Circe, who turns them all into pigs and corrals them.  Soon after Odysseus comes to her house.  He beguiles her, and she resolves to keep him as the object of her love.  She keeps him for a year, and at last sets him free to resume his voyages.

Just as Circe is only one episode in the story of Odysseus, Odysseus is only one episode in the story of Circe.  She was a shy child who adored her father, Helios.  She grew up knowing the rivalry between the Titans, her kin, and the Olympians, who arose to dominate the Titans.   She loved a mortal and was betrayed.  She learned the magic in herbs, and learned the spells cast by words of power.   For disobedience, her father exiled her to solitude on an island.

Her solitude was often interrupted by Hermes the messenger, and by voyagers who found their way to her shore.  It was an assault by sailors that prompted her to begin casting the spell to turn them to pigs.  So the centuries passed.

Then Odysseus came, and she held him, and she let him go.  Then she found love.  She freed herself from exile and began life anew.

These ancient texts carry fundamental meanings, or so we believe.  For comparison, the Mahabharata, containing the Bhagavad Gita, is about 2800 years old.  The Torah, comprising the earliest books of the Bible, is about 2600 years old.

In Circe, Miller does a good job of relating this ancient text to the present day.  Her prose is excellent, and her storytelling is rich and believable.  We believe in Circe from the first sentence to the last. What is her story?  She grows up as a meek girl among powerful beings, yet she contains an inner strength.  Those around her disrespect her, and for her inner strength she is exiled.  In exile, she grows into her own power, and finally, she finds what life means to her.  She finds real happiness.

 

 

 

 

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