Rating 2.5 stars
What to make of Circe? Madeline Miller’s re-imagining of Greek mythology is a curious thing. I wanted to love it but I barely liked it.
I’m not a fan of Greek mythology. The Greek gods are, without exception, a bunch of self-centred arseholes. The heroes whose lives they disrupt on a whim aren’t all that heroic, unless hero stands for blood thirsty warmongers obsessed with pretty women and infinite riches.
The reason I wanted to love Miller’s Circe is that I wanted her retelling to turn that mythology on its head and give us the perspective of one of the many women found in it, in such a way that the women come out better. Because surely the point of retelling a mythology forged by the male bards of an earlier time, a mythology that gives women a very particular role, is to tell it from the perspective of the women and explore how they feel about their situation in a way that empowers women.
I didn’t get the sense that this is what Miller had done. Instead, I was brought face to face with a central character who spends most of her time feeling like a victim, feeling martyred to the whims of the men in her life, feeling antagonism towards the women in her life, and not acting in any way empowered despite being a goddess.
Miller writes beautifully. I was gripped at times because the writing is so good. It’s like a river rushing along, fleet and silvery. And yet, somehow the book is ugly. Nobody who appears within its pages is likeable, not even our heroine. Every one of them is self absorbed. Miller’s true to the original in that sense.
At the start of the book, we meet the Titans. Helios and his father-in-law Oceanos lead the pack of gods who have been usurped by Zeus and the other new gods who live on Mount Olympus. Circe is the child of Helios and the nymph Perse. The way Circe is treated by her parents and siblings, even the brother who allegedly loves her, is abusive.
Over the first 80 pages or so, Circe is a disappointment to her family, meets Prometheus on his way to having his liver eternally pecked out, turns a mortal into a god so that he could marry her, turns her rival for his attention into a monster, and is banished to an uninhabited island as punishment for using witchcraft. That makes it sound exciting. In actuality, I found the opening chapters devoid of feeling. Not even Circe’s dad turning his fire on her until she blistered made me feel anything. Circe at that point was too wet, too docile, too bland.
I was puzzled by Miller’s take on Circe’s entanglement with Glaucos. I had to study some of the Aeneid at school for my Latin O Level, mainly Song 4 about Dido and Aeneas, but I also read the bit which features Glaucos the sea god in love with Scylla seeking out a potion from Circe to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe falls in love with Glaucos herself and, when he rejects her, turns Scylla into a monster in revenge. A bit different to what plays out in Miller’s version.
Of course, the thing about the Greek myths is that there are loads of variations and then the characters cross over into Roman mythology and nothing is clear because nothing is factual, so it doesn’t really matter.
The problem I had throughout was, I wanted Circe to be stronger, triumphant, independent. Instead, Miller renders her as someone who accepts others’ account of her as a fool and speaks of herself that way often enough that I believed her. She’s a victim and a martyr to her victimhood. I find it hard to read books where I hate the main character. The last time it happened, her name was Catelyn Stark and she caused my abandonment of the Game of Thrones books after volume two. It still rankles because people still tell me that I’d love the Game of Thrones books, that they get better, and then I have to tell them that there are more books in the world that I want to read than I have time for, and I’d rather not read books that make me want to punch characters in the face.
Miller’s version of Circe’s tale is a story of loneliness, of wanting to be loved, of being constantly used and rejected or abandoned, but it doesn’t offer any alternatives. It’s a book where men are utterly selfish and women are favour seekers who fall into two camps – the pathetic pleasers and the manipulative takers. It depressed me. I wanted Circe to be outside the trope. Instead, she is the witch who lives alone, falls over herself to accept the merest sliver of attention from a man, and resorts to the petty revenge of turning men into pigs when they come to her island with rape and pillage on their minds.
Maybe I’m crediting Miller with more than she intended, but I sensed an allegory about the island where Circe is banished being representative of a time when news and current affairs weren’t streamed into our lives 24/7 and then, through the arrival of chattering, shallow nymphs being banished there by their fathers, being representative of a time when we only hear the limited things that bounce round our echo chambers. I got the bit about there being a time when not all men were bastards and now all men seem to be bastards because that’s who comes to Circe’s island/is presented as such to us on social media. I got it and that made me feel depressed as well.
I’m tired of this story. It plays out in the media every day. If it is to be incorporated into the fiction I read as well, then I want it to have a more positive outcome. I’m tired of women being victims in fiction, and especially tired of their victimhood being dressed up as resilience by female as well as male authors. I’m tired of them being martyrs to a cause of their own obsessive invention, dressing it up as their fate. I’m tired of the tale being about women unable to resist a bad boy, women thinking they can save a man (Circe’s refrain is This is something torn that I can mend), women claiming that sleeping with whomever they choose is liberation when really what they want is a steady relationship, those same women condemning their sister women, who genuinely do feel liberated by transient relationships, as hard hearted bitches. I’m tired of all the female judging.
I’ve had enough of the men in such literature being portrayed as enigmatic, strong silent types when actually they are selfish and dull. Even the passages in this book where it seems as though men, Daedalus and Odysseus in the main, are interested in Circe because she has a brain and isn’t your standard vacuous, scheming nymph, show that they’re mostly interested in how she makes them feel, how her interesting aspects reflect back on them. It shows them as the fools they are, but it doesn’t show Circe as being strong in the face of it. It shows her as insipid, actionless, fettered.
Almost everyone in the book uses someone else for their own purpose. Happy endings are hard to find when everyone is scheming. What a depressing state of affairs.
The only characters who don’t use others for their own purposes are Odysseus’s sons Telemachus and Telegonus. Telegonus, Circe’s son by Odysseus, is from his birth a raging ball of frustration kept prisoner by his overprotective mother. His existence, his individuality, brings out the worst in Circe, drawing to the surface her whining martyrdom, her belief that she can keep him safe by not letting him live freely in the world. She’s a fucking maniac. Telemachus, son of Penelope and Odysseus, is a boy who waits for a hero who never returns from war and grows into a man disappointed by his father, excluded by his mother, and more sure of what he wants as a result. Penelope is a silent presence in his life, scheming over her loom, waiting for others to reveal their natures rather than taking action to change her and her son’s lives for the better.
And when the chance of a happy ending appears for Circe, what does she do? She moans. First about how hard it is to be immortal and have to watch the mortals you love die, knowing your divinity will stop you seeing them in the afterlife. Second about how the gods might ruin it all anyway if she transforms herself into the mortal she wants to be. How about living in the moment and enjoying it, Circe? How about letting go of your dreary pessimism for a bit and being the sort of woman others might find a smidgeon of inspiration in?
The ending redeemed the rest of the book a little bit. Circe finally does something for herself and imagines a different future, one in which she’s happy, loved and fulfilled. What a shame that the bit I enjoyed was less than 1% of the book.