Circe, Madeline Miller

As a book nerd I love to read reviews, blog posts, reddit threads; watch films, lectures and TV series on books that get me thinking. Some of the most fulfilling are well written fan fiction novels. Circe is a successful representative of this sub-genre.

The author Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning first book, a first person account of Achilles’ friend/lover Patroclus, was about The Iliad. Another notable book that came out recently is the untold story of the women in the Trojan war (The Silence of the Girls) following others like Homer’s Daughter, Penelopiad, and the most famous one Ulysses – which is loosely based on Homer’s epic.

Last summer, during our 3 days in Kalymnos, another Greek island I can see from my seat while I type these words, I was unable to put down The Odyssey. Before departing for our yearly holidays this year which included 3 days in Kos, Circe gleaming in bronze, was begging me to pick it up from the top of my tsundoku pile.

Circe - Madeline MillerThe book is a reimagining of Circe’s story in The Odyssey (and other Greek myths). Miller exonerates Circe from her aggression against visiting sailors to her island (The Odyssey), puts relations with her evil sister into perspective (Daedalus and the Minotaur) and gives her credit for her role as an accomplice in the story of her niece Medea and Jason (Jason and the Golden Fleece).

Reading and rereading literary fiction is like looking in the mirror – the reflection changes as the observer and the issues they face evolve with time.  In Circe, some readers might find the feminist twist to Homer’s tale enticing. Others might enjoy the power struggles and politics between the gods and the mortals. The story might also resonate with some readers with respect to difficult relations with close relatives. And some might be swept away by Miller’s page turner to find out what’s next, even though they may be familiar with the ancient plot.

I could not put the book down for 3 days even though I occasionally was annoyed by Miller’s excessive use of metaphors. Cringing with my possible ill judgement, I thought she had occupational deformations of a teacher who has corrected too many essays in her time (Miller is a teacher of Greek, Latin and Shakespeare).

Circe Offering The Cup to Odysseus

Circe Offering The Cup to Ulysses (aka Odysseus), by John William Waterhouse

I sympathized with Circe’s feelings of ceaseless guilt and self flagellation. I may not have created man eating monsters after my jealousy fits, but probably thanks to my Kayserian upbringing I feel a tang of guilt in everything I do or fail to do.  But the novel got even more relevant for me after Circe decided to have a child from the mortal Odysseus (without telling him) – and why would she?

Once Telegonus is born, Circe gets confused by the joys and agonies of parenthood, which like sorcery cannot be taught but must be learned. The dilemma of protecting and letting go, being attached to a mortal and living forever to see them die is agonizing.

Circe had fallen in love with mortals twice already, both of whom she had to “let go” and yet the feeling of continuity can also be meaningful for an immortal. In Circe’s words, “I see now that (gods) are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging”. As Buddhists know very well, everything in life is impermanent.

Gods may be around forever, but mortals have to choose to leave a mark in the world and pay a price for it. Those like Telemachus who prefer a more quiet life can leave their marks by having children – even if that means crossing their stern father Odysseus or vengeful Athena, the goddess of war.

Eventually parents have to come to terms with the fact that they are not their children, children do not reflect their faults and will not help attain their unfulfilled desires in life. And children surely will not make up for their parents’ mistakes.

The parents will have to let their kids go.

Sometimes it takes a Goddess to come to a tough decision, sometimes The Fates show us the way and sometimes a mere mortal has to choose and bear the consequences.

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