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I have been fascinated by Greek mythology ever since I was introduced to the Iliad and the Odyssey during high school. The world of the gods, goddesses, heroes and monsters vividly came to life in my teenage mind as I read retellings and versions of it. I think that was the time I felt the first stirrings of my passion for writing.
Reading Circe by Madeline Miller is like going back to the halls of my high school, circa 80’s. The prose is excellent, reminiscent of Homer’s style and dramatic similes and metaphors. The reader is transported to varied worlds with each detailed description of various settings, persons, and objects.
What makes Circe more compelling and impactive is the way the author intricately wove the events in the Iliad and the Odyssey—and the more recent, loved stories—within its context. In this book, Circe takes prominent place among the gods, even a crucial role, in many of the well-known Greek characters’s lives. At the same time, Miller injected a few modern tales, namely The Ugly Duckling and Cinderella. The result is a powerful, indelible rendering of the life of an otherwise lesser entity in Greek mythology.
But I think the best thing about this book is the portrayal of Circe’s character development. One can’t help but be lured into the web that was Circe’s life, and relate with her throughout her journey. In the beginning, she was considered ugly, without any power except for her immortality. She was called stupid, smirked upon and bullied by her kind. In her naivete (and it is significant to say here, in the absence of well-meaning parents who should’ve genuinely cared for and guided her), she did terrible things out of pure impulse, things which burdened her for life. She made mistakes, she trusted the wrong people, she was used, abused and mistreated. But through all these, she remained her own person, with her values and principles intact, unchanged by cruelty and malice. She may have performed some black magic (turned men to pigs) but it was an act that can only be accepted as rational by a goddess wronged by mortals, a retaliation to their crime against her. Through all these, her concern and consideration of mortals remained, even as she sought approval and affection from her own kind. In the end, it was this tenderness of heart toward those inferior, perishable beings that gave her the ultimate peace she had long wished for.
It is to be noted that except for Circe, Miller chose to depict her gods and goddesses as selfish, self-entitled beings with absolutely no genuine fondness for mortals (and even their own kin) except when they are useful to their whims. The gods caused bad things to happen to mortals, leading them to turn to the deities for help and worship, for their own egocentric, manipulative games. But of course, maybe it’s because this is Circe’s story. She took center stage as the only good one among rotten tomatoes, making others pale in the background. Zeus didn’t even make an appearance.
There were one or two instances, too, when the author (unknowingly, I presume) slipped into modern tone and language which were totally out of place (and curiously, all involving the “f” word): “That he fucks them, of course.” “I fucked the sacred bull, all right?”
Her evolution, from plain nymph to a powerful witch whom even the mighty gods were afraid of; from an immature, insecure girl to a seasoned woman of substance; from a damsel who saw the world with rose-colored glasses to a wisened mother who will sacrifice herself for her son’s sake, were remarkably well-written, suffused with the joys and pains accompanying each life phase and inciting appropriate emotions from the reader. You can feel Circe’s frustrations, disappointments, sadness, anger and, in rare, scant moments, her happiness. What a journey!
If I were to describe Circe in simple words, I’d say it’s the story of a goddess who lived a colorful mortal’s life. And that is what makes it a great book, being inherently human in its depths—and therefore, identifiable. I love the prose, the tone, and the writer’s style. Truly an excellent piece of literature.
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