Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I first encountered the figure of Circe at the age of nine as I worked on a project detailing Greek and Roman myth. At the time, she was just another mythological entity, but thirteen years later she has blossomed into being for me through Madeline Miller’s Circe.

I had never thought to wonder what Circe’s childhood would be like, but that is precisely where the story as Miller has chosen to tell it begins. The book starts with the first person narration of Circe, detailing the traditions of the ‘lesser’ gods, particularly nymphs such as her mother Perse and demoted or diminished Titans (such as her uncles, who are placated by her father, the sun god Helios, who remains powerful). Circe’s early worldview is shaped by her complete immersion into the world of immortals, with almost no contact with mortals until later in her life.

The narration of Circe’s early life and naivete is intriguing, and sets up for her compelling transition into witchcraft, but the book only truly starts when Circe begins her exile. After growing up in the halls of her father, the sun god, Circe participates actively in a series of events that lead to Zeus demanding her exile, and she begins to live alone on the island of Aiaia. Although it is a punishment, exile is what ultimately leads Circe to discover her own freedom, through the honing of her craft, the mastery of life on the island (animals and plants alike), visits from mortals or other gods, and even a couple trips off the island (one allowed and one illicit). Circe learns how to exert her autonomy and develop relationships, both good and bad with those who come to her island and those in the outside world. Circe is a coming-of-age story not in the literal sense of youth to adulthood, as Circe is millenia old, but in the sense of a person who continuously develops between the stagnated world of gods and the fleeting world of mortals.

The retelling of classical myth from Circe’s perspective is compelling because as someone cut off from the outside world, her isolation puts her into a unique position that allows us to hear the myths she is not the focus of secondhand and from the perspective of an immortal. The secondhand nature of these accounts leads to several myths having but the most basic of cameos, and I am sure that some will go flying over the heads of people who are not as familiar with Greek myth. Nevertheless, I do not think that this detracts from Circe; rather, it enables readers to enjoy the text on multiple levels.

The fact that Circe is an immortal is also important to the narration because when classical myths are told, they are almost exclusively through the perspective of mortals, or from stories told to mortals, where the gods are seen from a worshipful perspective. Since readers are experiencing these myths through Circe we get to see these myths as they might be interpreted from someone who is both divine and female.

I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate having a book with such a resilient and nuanced female protagonist that exists in an environment that is so oppressive to women. When I read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles* I was taken aback by the stark reference to the maltreatment of women as was customary in the period, something that is also present within Circe. While I considered The Song of Achilles an excellent book, the portrayal of women churned my stomach, as it always does in mythological tales told from the male perspective.

The difference for me in reading Circe was that as a woman Circe is able to pick up on the subtle ways that women maintain what power and autonomy they can, and additionally does so herself. I always remembered Circe from the Odyssey as turning men into pigs because she was cruel, but (mild spoiler) in this book she does so to combat the very real threat of rape by men who come to her island. Circe is full of these small alterations that truly flesh out the character as her own being. Similarly we are allowed access to Medea and Penelope, two other women of myth who have contrasting but equally stunning places in the mythological tradition. Medea is a powerful witch in her own right, as is seen in the myth of Jason, and Penelope is the well-known wife of Odysseus. Both of them have amazing stories, and are personal favorites of mine, which is why I enjoyed their presences within Circe so much, though they fill very different roles within the text.

Overall I consider Circe to be a brilliant take on the mythological tradition and presentation of Circe’s journey is one I have deeply enjoyed. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone who has even a passing interest in myth, and I wholeheartedly believe that even those who don’t would be craving more once they’ve read this excellent novel.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

*To read my review of The Song of Achilles click the hyperlink!

Book Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

This is the GIF I sent to my group chat as soon as I finished reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller:

crying

Half of the tears were because of the story itself, but the other half were for the fact that I went a whole six years of my  life without having read this book. The Song of Achilles tells the story of the lives of and love between Patroclus and Achilles. Considering that the Iliad, together with the Odyssey serve as what some call the foundation of the Western canon, I think that the moratorium on spoilers is functionally non-existent, but I will do my best to make this a spoiler free-review just in case.

As a classics minor and more importantly a lover of mythology, I knew the basic plot of the story before I turned the first page, but I remained emotionally unprepared for this book that does so much more than retell Iliad. As a matter of fact, the Iliadic portion of the text doesn’t even start until chapter twenty-five. The book opens with Patroclus recounting the marriage of his parents’s marriage and his own birth and childhood. In many ways, The Song of Achilles, is a coming of age story, soaked in the mythic tradition that my professors have so kindly educated me with. We follow, from Patroclus’s perspective, his journey from his place as the son of a son of Kings to be the beloved of Achilles, the best of the Greeks, and staying by his side throughout the most famous war in literary history – that of the Trojans and the Greeks.

According to the back cover of my copy, the Wall Street Journal called this book “One of the best novelistic adaptations of Homer in recent memory,” and I have to agree. Madeline Miller’s text has reinforced my already fierce belief that stories are meant to be told and retold. I  believe that my knowledge of the Homeric tradition greatly added to my experience reading this book, as I noticed all of the subtle (and not-so-subtle!) nods to the myths I have grown to know and love, but I also strongly believe that someone with little to no familiarity with the source material would also enjoy this story.

The blossoming from friendship to love between Achilles and Patroclus is incredibly moving and quite realistic, both within the text itself and when considering its original mythic context. The two quite clearly share a close bond, but one that is not at all overdone or rushed. On a personal note, I am 100% here for literature that acknowledges and celebrates the fact that queerness is here and always has been. Beyond the representation present within The Song of Achilles, I find the cast and characters incredibly compelling and I enjoyed every second that I read through the text. I was so engaged that I read the entire book in one setting* and was hit with the “what do you mean it’s over??” feels. (See above GIF)

That is not to say that I have no criticisms of the book. While I wholly enjoyed the text and intend to read it again, I know that it is not for everyone. The text makes free and constant reference to both rape and slavery in ways that certainly unsettled my stomach. The presence of the content is not the fault of the author, but more the source material and time period. On the very first page we read of Patroclus’s who was arranged to be married to an abusive husband at age fourteen, and Patroclus tells us that his father didn’t care about her appearance because “if she was ugly, there was always slave girls and serving boys.” The text pulls no punches when referencing the treatment of women in the time period, and while Patroclus and Achilles do not themselves participate in such activities, and are uncomfortable at times, they still accept that it is a practice and do not publicly voice any concerns. Despite the fact that I read both Achilles and Patroclus as being bisexual, and thus we do have some queer representation there are class and gender issues abound within the world of The Song of Achilles and I’m not going to pretend that they don’t exist.

On the whole, I greatly recommend the book, though I issue a strong content warning for rape, slavery, gore, and the general violence that comes with close-combat warfare.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

*Excluding one Hogwarts Mystery break because my phone buzzed and I realized that class was about to end and I was still 2 stars short in regard to successfully brewing my herbicide potion.

Brainstorming

If there is one thing I love, it’s talking to someone about a story. Not even my own story, but just being a sounding board. There’s something about the creativity of others that I just find so fun and interesting. I have a deep affection for my friends, and my writing friends (Shout out to Emily at ninescoredays.blogspot.com who is awesome!) who inspire me with their own stories and help me shape mine.

Last semester for our final assignment in Classical Mythology we were tasked with making a creative project. There were a few different options, depending on whether you wanted your project to be written, spoken, or performed. I went for the writing prompt of course, because I’m all about the writing. Would I have a blog otherwise? However one thing stuck out to me. The professor had made notes on the differences between what projects did what, and under this assignment he noted that this was the best assignment for people who wished to work alone. Since the other assignments were much more outwardly collaborative this did make sense, but I still balked at the insinuation that writing was not a collaborative effort. Now I know that isn’t what he was saying, but it was the first implication that I grasped.

I don’t think I could have written any of my larger pieces without collaborative effort. In fact, I’m pretty sure that at least one other person looked over every assignment I turned in last semester (tests and other assignments where this was prohibited aside) to check for spelling errors if nothing else. And yet, beyond spelling errors, there are a great many things to be gained by sharing your work with others. A second gaze can help you know when to clarify, when to pull back, and when to elaborate. Critiquing is one of the best things you can have someone do to a piece, and while it takes a good amount of trust at times, it is also a worthwhile relationship to have with others.

Now I don’t claim to have a second reader for everything I’ve ever written and posted; for instance the majority of posts for this blog go straight from my computer to the servers, without crossing any eyes but mine. I do revise them, but the majority of the time that is a solitary venture.

That said, when working on major works, writing collaboratively is one of the best things a person can do. I mean hey, someone looked at this before I posted it.

Cheers,
Talia

Storytelling

For the past two Classical Mythology lessons I have gone to the focus has moved away from lectures to storytelling. There are many options for our final project in that class, but the one I am going for is to write an adaptation of a myth. All of the prompts have to do with storytelling, and that is why we had someone come in to talk to us about it. He told us that we create stories as groups, and it is only together that we can stitch the pieces into each other to form the whole. All we can really do is set the stage for what can happen and then step back to let the best things emerge.

Is a story really a story until you tell it to someone else?

Bellerophon

On Thursday our topic in Classical Mythology was Bellerophon.

Bellerophon was one of the Heroes of Ancient Greek myth, and his story is particularly important because it covers what happens to him after all of his trials are over and he settles down into his life post-heroic deeds.

To give you some back story on Bellerophon, we first have to clarify that he was the one with the Pegasus. This is going to be a multiple choice question on the test and if we select Perseus instead we will get marked wrong. The pained look on my Professor’s face when Heracles was mentioned was slightly hilarious and he adamantly told us he would not be making him an option.*

Moving forward, Bellerophon is actually really interesting. Reportedly, an ancient hero equal at some points in Greek history to Perseus and Cadmus, he was the classic hero type: kills the monster and gets the princess.

If you are interested in more details about Bellerophon, here are a few of my class notes, but feel free to skip them:

Bellerophon in Homer

  • In Iliad 6, the Trojan ally Glaukos meets Diomedes on the field
  • Glaukos’ ancestor Bellerophon lived in Argos
  • The king Proetus hated him because of his wife
  • Anteia wanted to have sex with Bellerophon, but he wouldn’t
  • Proetus sent Bellerophon to Lykia with a sealed message to give to the king who was
  • Anteia’s father Iobates
  • The message said to kill him

Potiphar’s Wife

  • Potiphar’s Wife Motif: the adulterous wife who turns on her desired lover
    Genesis 39-40
  • Joseph, sold into slavery, was purchased by an Egyptian officer named Potiphar
  • Potiphar made him overseer of the house
  • His wife asked him to sleep with her, but he refused
  • She told Potiphar that Joseph tried to rape her
  • Joseph ended up in prison where his dream interpretations attracted the attentions of the Pharaoh

Bellerophon’s Deeds

  • Iobates cannot kill Bellerophon because of their guest-host relationship, so he sent
  • Bellerophon on one-way missions
    • to kill the Chimaera
    • qto fight the Solymoi
    • to battle the Amazons
  • He set an ambush for him, but Bellerophon defeated the best men
  • Iobates had him marry his daughter and rule with him in Lykia
  • According to Homer, Bellerophon fell out of favor with the gods for no specified reason

Eventually, Bellerophon tries to ride the Pegasus up to Mt. Olympus to become a god, but this is reaching to far so the Pegasus betrays him and Zeus strikes him down with a lightning bolt.

I enjoy the tale of Bellerophon for many reasons, but primarily because of the two questions I feel it raises most clearly:

1. What does it mean to “reach too far”?

2. What happens to the hero after the fight is over?

As for the first, in class my Professor stated something along the lines of: “What is the line between telling people that they can ‘be whatever they want to be’ (which is a lie) and ‘stay in your lane’?” This is a super interesting question for me, because there is undoubtedly a line there, and one that is particularly precarious, especially when raising children.~

It brings me back to Harry Potter, among other things. Take Voldemort for example. He was so obsessed with becoming immortal that he dies at the mere age of 71, where if he had simply lived the long life that wizards tend to get then he would have made it into his hundreds.

To stop and think through our actions and their affects can be difficult for people, and thinking that we can help ourselves and others to rise up in the world can sometimes be our downfall. It’s an important lesson, and one that I value. It is also a lesson that I learned from Bellerophon, when reading the myths as a kid. So this story is important to me in that way, and also in the sense of the second question I have.

Stories tend to end right after the battle ends, after the lovers admit their true love to one another, as a family is miraculously reunited and so forth. But what happens to the heroes after the battles are over, they attain their desired lover, etc.? They get their happily ever after, but what does that mean? If you have read/seen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child you know that according to the play, Harry settles into middle age and not super successfully raising his kids. And with Bellerophon we see that he gets bored and causes trouble, leading to his death.

My Professor brought up the stereotypical rules that many (myself included) are told to play: Primary School, Secondary School, then the optional sets of College, Grad School, Employment, Marriage, Kids, Retirement – then what? What is there to do once you have crossed the benchmarks of life?

Now these things are by no means necessary. Many people that I know have either rejected this path, or done it out of order, or intend not to follow it at all. But in the end, whatever benchmarks we set for ourselves, there is an after.° And I think that the prospect of this is terrifying, because although the sense of relaxation can be good, there is that saying that ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ When it is all said and done, I don’t know why Bellerophon wanted to be immortal, because honestly an eternity of boredom is what I would expect. Then again, I’m a bit of a pessimist.

Cheers,

Talia

*Apologizes to the Disney fans but that movie was so inaccurate that a drinking game could give you alcohol poisoning.

~Which I’m not, but I have lots of younger cousins.

°Unless we die, but I’m trying to stay positive here.