Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Unfeeling gods versus the power of human emotions
Circe was not a top contender on my reading list
I can still see Shirley Sprong standing in front of the classroom at Clarksville High, black-rimmed glasses, big-toothed, and scholarly, valiantly leading a class full of nerds into the language of Latin. Her verbal charge was “Veni, vidi, vici.” Her husky voice twists through a long-ago fog of battles and heroes, gods and goddesses, Circe among them.
My decidedly Christian upbringing made it difficult for me to relate to the Roman Gods, no matter how enthusiastic Miss Sprong was. Though I’ve always been a writer filled with ideas, I struggled when it came to creation myths and multiple Gods, and I saw the irony when I thought, “Lord, help me,” after being assigned to write a story about the gods of old.
So believe me when I say that Madeline Miller’s novel, Circe, was not a top contender on my reading list.
What made me read it
Until my daughter told me I HAD to read it. You may know how it is with mothers and daughters. I wanted to please her, connect with her. Both my girls are avid readers, and we enjoy talking about our current “reads,” so while Circe wouldn’t have been my top choice, I was game. Besides, she had made it easy by gifting me with a Book of the Month subscription.
Sometimes the greatest pleasure comes from the most unexpected places.
Circe was a unique and memorable book that took me to a world I had never allowed myself to imagine…the halls of the Titan gods forever battling the Olympian deities. Places filled with strident, vain, struggling creatures interested in power. Bizarre creatures that demonstrate bazaar behaviors. Liaisons, lovers, lechery, and disloyalty twirling through the heady air of the halls of Helios. The loneliness, power, and longing of the goddess, Circe, caught between gods and mortals. All in one compelling story.
The story of Circe
You may remember the name of Circe, the goddess in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, who turns sailors into pigs and gives solace to Odysseus before he returns home to Penelope.
This is her story, told in her voice.
Why I’m glad I read it
Madeline Miller’s language is powerful and stunning. I quickly felt the heat of Circe’s father, Helios, Titan god of the sun, as well as his personality in two sentences:
“My father glowed bright as just-forged bronze….He liked the way the obsidian reflected his light, the way its slick surfaces caught fire as he passed.”
Just as quick and just as evocative were the words that showcased the seduction used on Helios by Circe’s mother, Perse, a nymph daughter of Oceanos:
“She turned before him slowly, showing the lushness of her figure, as if she were roasting on a spit.”
Love of nature
Circe is eventually banished from the halls of Helios and taken to her own wild island where she is an eternal captive. In her isolation, she begins to find her power as a witch drawing strength from the plants and flowers.
But it is not the spells or the sorcery she learns that captivated me. It was Madeline Miller’s descriptions of the natural world Circe inhabited that I came to love.
Circe describes her first experiences as a woman alone on her deserted island:
“…I learned to recognize the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral. I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac, and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the harbor safe for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud. I stroked the glossy brown scorpions who braved me with their tails. Their poison was barely a pinch. I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s halls had never made me.”
The untamed, natural world of Circe’s island and the surrounding sea was a place my mortal psyche roamed with the goddess, Circe, and her companion lions and wolves.
Literary characters finally made sense
The blur of battles and heroes that I remembered from reading Odysseus in Senior English began to solidify. The gods and goddesses that conflicted me in Latin class became familiars. All those blurry, intertwined images from long ago began to make sense in Madeline Miller’s book.
The tangled relationships between the Gods and the literature I read forty years ago sorted itself out. Medea and Jason, Daedalus and Icarus, Odysseus and Penelope, Circe and Hermes became real. The six-headed Scylla was not a character in some crazy, creative writing exercise, but a monster made by the misplaced malevolence of a goddess.
The power of relationships
Circe was a soul in limbo between the halls of the gods and the world of humans. She struggles with the petty, ugly, continual barrage of slights and threats of the deities. She admires the courage and strength of mortals. Even though she’s a goddess, she recognizes the rarity and the gift of love.
One of my favorite passages of the book is what she says after the death of Daedalus, her human lover:
“Daedalus did not long outlive his son. His limbs turned gray and nerveless, and all his strength was transmuted into smoke. I had no right to claim him. I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
Rare moments, indeed.
Insight on mortality from the viewpoint of an immortal goddess
The first line of the book foreshadows Circe’s struggle for her identity and the constant fight between divinity and mortality.
“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.”
Circe does not fit in with the rest of the Gods. She has the voice of a mortal, grating to the ears of the gods. She cannot light flames or conjure heat like her father. She is powerless and sniveling, an embarrassment to her parents and her siblings.
Until she isn’t.
She has a perverse and traitorous desire to help Prometheus who is being punished by the other gods because of his “foolish love for mortals.” She understands him. When she begins to show human emotion — defying the gods to give a drink to Prometheus, she begins to discover her own unique power.
Circe’s desire for acceptance takes her to the mortal world and a sailor named Glaucos. She transforms Glaucos into a god who promptly scorns Circe for another nymph named Scylla.
Circe’s reaction causes the deaths of countless mortals for eternity, and she begins to understand that immortality is not a blessing. It’s an unending curse of living the same mistake over and over.
In the end, Circe, daughter of a God and lover of mortals, the creature who lived between two worlds, teaches the blessings of being mortal:
“Overhead the constellations dip and wheel. My divinity shines in me like the last rays of the sun before they drown in the sea. I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands….I have a mortal’s voice, let me have the rest.”
Daring. Original. Interesting. If you’re looking for something apart from mysteries, thrillers, biographies, romances, non-fiction, or sci-fi, try Circe.
Melissa Gouty’s inner goddess loves the idea of a private island like Circe’s equipped with self-cleaning hearths and abundant food and flowers, but she’d prefer the company of her dogs, Zoey and Ella, to the company of lions and wolves. Her Bill is a way better man than the fickle, Hermes, and is just about as talented as the famed Daedalus. Subscribe to her Literature Lust newsletter.