BOOKS

Circe

Author: Madeline Miller

Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

As a fan of Miller’s Song of Achilles, I was excited to read her latest novel, Circe.

Miller’s niche is thoughtful exploration of the society and psychology of the characters in the ancient epics. In particular, she likes to use the perspective of a “minor character” to examine the motivations of the “major characters,” explore the characters’ society, and provide poetic lushness to the stories’ settings.

In Achilles she re-lenses the war at Troy through Achilles’ companion, Patroclus; in Circe she re-lenses The Odyssey as well as the Minoan / Argonaut cycle through Circe. Achilles focuses on lovers’ devotions and heroic violence, but Circe’s arenas of contending are intellect, bravery, and politics. Miller’s books are complimentary, but they each have a different perspective on the ancient world.

Circe is an excellent read, a fun story, and a beautifully rich envisioning of the Mediterranean world. Many of my favorite passages hinge on Circe’s description of sorcery and spell-casting. These passages will resonate with makers of things of all media and all capabilities (see notes after the jump). Circe’s language for this work is highly evocative of programming.

Miller also gives Circe some insights about the nature of religion. She notes that it’s a fear and bullying cascade from the top (Zeus) to the bottom (her) based in insecurity which compels the caprice of the gods to ensure lamentations, offerings, and begging continue. In short, to secure the adulation they hold dear, they have to ensure a cascade of misery.

And Miller is not simply adding footnotes to the epics we know, resting within the lines drawn by ancient poets. Where Homer does not provide psychology, Miller does; where Ovid is blatantly sexist, Miller’s characters rankle with the unfairness and the dearth of options; where the beauty and poetry of the Mediterranean is reduced to a simple epithet, Miller layers on honey-rich descriptions of the sun, the gardens, and the sea.

Story

As a witch, Circe’s a sorceress with the materials offered from the Earth. She works, unlike the Olympians or other Titans. Her hands are dirty, she smells of the land, but in this she’s more mortal and more sympathetic than the ichor-blooded gods of the ancient world. Exiled from a family that never understood her and certainly never loved her, she is eternally alone on her island as an exile — however the Fates are sure to bring world-shaking visitors to her shores.

In her long life, she meets Hermes, Daedalus, Jason with Medea, and, of course, the wily wanderer, Odysseus. In the book, all of the characters are enriched and made more interesting by interaction with Miller’s Circe. Daedalus’ cleverness, intelligence, and work ethic match Circe’s own and they find an attraction rooted in this. Faithless and self-loathing, she finds a cynical relationship with Hermes, playful and debased. With Odysseus she finds surprise and cleverness and roots their relationship in this fascination. Through it all, Circe is wise about her lovers in a way that feels immortal, but she is passionate in a way that feels familiar. It’s a truly special voice for a character.

However all this story happens tottering on top of the uneasy cold peace between the Olympians and the Titans. While Circe was born of the blood of the latter, he very suvival requires her to thread the narrow gap, Scylla and Charybdis-like, between the cold peace between the two. The final act heats the conflict as Circe gambles all that she loves for the right to self-determination.

Notes

{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "It was my first lesson. Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two.",
  "location": 16
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "It was like a great chain of fear, I thought. Zeus at the top and my father [Helios] just behind. Then Zeus' siblings and children, then my uncles...",
  "location": 32
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Perhaps she [Athena] was too wise to offer compliments as one in a crowd",
  "location":  32
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world",
  "location":  43
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "'Of course he will [die]. He is mortal, that is their lot.' | 'It is not fair,' I said. 'It cannot be.' | 'Those are two different things...' ",
  "location": 45
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "What could make a god afraid? I knew that answer too. | A power greater than their own.",
  "location":  46
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "That was my new home: a monument to my father's pride",
  "location": 80
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung.  Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.",
  "location": 83
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Witchcraft is nothing but such drudgery",
  "location":  84
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and being again. So why did I not mind? Why did none of us mind?",
  "location":  84
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Then I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bet for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt.",
  "location":  84
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Each spell was a mountain to be climbed anew. All I could carry with me from last time was the knowledge that it could be done.",
  "location":  85
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Transformation touched only bodies, not minds.",
  "location":  86
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you.",
  "location":  89
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "He was a poison snake, and I was another, and on such terms we pleased ourselves",
  "location":  95
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "I would like the whole business of it [loom-weaving], the simplicity and skill at once, the smell of the wood, the shush of the shuttle, the satisfying way weft stacked upon weft. IT was a little like spell-work, I thought for your hands must be busy, and your mind sharp and free.",
  "location":  155
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Of course not, he said, it has been hidden in the foundation, but look, there it is, plain as day. See the cracked beam? See the beetles eating the floor? See how the stone is sinking into the swamp?...When there is rot in the walls, there is only one remedy...Tear down, I thought. Tear down and build again.",
  "location":  192
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "They were sick with longing for their hands, those appendages men use to mitigate the world.",
  "location": 196
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "'Oh, she [Troy] was stout enough, but it was our weakness that drew the war out, not her strength.'",
  "location": 201
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.",
  "location":  206
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "When he talked, he was lawyer and bard and crossroads charlatan at once, arguing his case, entertaining, pulling back the veil to show you the secrets of the world. It  was not just his words, though they were clever enough. It was everything together : his face, his gestures, the sliding tones of his voice. I would say it was like a spell he cast, but there was no spell I knew that could equal it. The gift was his alone.",
  "location": 212
},
{
  "type": "Highlight",
  "highlight": "'Which means you are like Daedalus after all. Only instead of wood, you work in men.'",
  "location": 213
}