Circe by Madeline Miller is a modern reworking of The Odyssey, by Homer. This Ancient Greek classic tells the story of Greek warrior Odysseus, who after fighting in the Trojan wars, makes a long and eventful journey home. Circe is one of the characters he meets on the way, a witch living on a deserted island, who uses her magic to turn his men into pigs.
Madeline Miller tells this story from Circe’s perspective. We learn about her childhood as the daughter of Helios the sun god, her aptitude for “phamakos” – the use of plants to make healing and transforming potions – and her banishment to a remote island, for apparently misusing magical powers. In exile, Circe makes a life for herself, developing magical skills, and defending herself from passing sailors who occasionally come ashore looking for food and drink. This is how she eventually meets Odysseus.
There’s much you could say about the unusual woman’s point of view. Circe is traditionally portrayed in the various myths about her, as a predatory woman. She turns trusting men into pigs and seduces travellers. But hang on a moment. What is the likely scenario when a boat load of soldiers, brutalised after a long war, arrive at an island where the only inhabitant is an attractive and lone woman? What might actually happen in this situation? Let’s think. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that from a woman’s point of view, a boat load of heroes looks more like a boat load of vile animals. Now we see that turning those men into pigs is a sensible measure of self preservation, with a metaphorical helping of just desserts.
So the viewpoint is very interesting, and says a lot about the historical portrayal and situation of women.
But I wouldn’t say this book was just about a woman’s perspective on personal power. It’s also about the way people in general try to influence their world and protect themselves. Circe, as daughter of a god, is immortal, which means that all the scars of her trials and tribulations fade away as if they never existed. She realises that in such a situation, it is very difficult to grow, to amount to anything. We also see Circe’s efforts at securing protection rebound on herself. Early in the book, she falls in love with a fisherman, and wanting to protect him from the dangers of his life, transforms him into a god, only to lose him in the arrogant deity she creates. Later, in an effort to protect her son, she gives him a spear tipped with the venomous tail of an ancient sea creature. Inevitably such a dangerous weapon causes an unintended friendly fire incident. These contradictions fill the book, and demonstrate that power itself makes certain things impossible, and security creates its own dangers. By the same token, vulnerable mortals have power and protection that even gods lack.
I recommend Circe. It gives a humane, feminine view of stories which have traditionally been told from a “heroic” male viewpoint. Its nuanced view of power offers a refreshing view of the strength of women. But whether the reader is a man or a women, they can enjoy a fascinating exploration of power and security in general. Circe is like Stonehenge – it has the spirit of something that looks like an ancient fort with mighty walls, but has plenty of space between the stones to allow in the light.