Circe ፧ Madeline Miller

Circe, by Madeline Miller. Buy it from Powells.

The highest praise I can give to Circe is to simply describe, simply and without exaggeration, how I felt when I finished the book. It felt like a heavy weight on my chest, and like every feeling of loneliness and powerlessness and fear had been dug up from the deep places I had tried to bury them in. I put the book down and immediately headed out into the rain to walk to a bar to be around people and to connect to my own worry-worn rosary made up of clichés like we met and talked all night and I took one look and knew they were the one.

That’s what happened.

Circe, whose “official story” as a sexually tempting sea-witch is contained in a brief interlude in The Odyssey, is born as one of the least powerful immortals. Her family is not kind to her, and although she has a powerful father, this does not give her protection. Instead, it makes her a particularly vulnerable (easy to use) pawn in a game in which she has no place and cannot win. Things happen to her, she learns lessons. Ultimately, she has to choose between listening to what everyone around her tells her is her place, or, taking the lonely road of learning to listen and trust herself, and therefore discover her own power.

I saw a lot of myself in Circe’s story. Although it turns out that, seen with hindsight and self-confidence, there was less to fear than I believed, I too felt different and removed from my family. But there is only so much kinship with Circe I can claim, because a lot of the emotional dynamics explored in this book involve family abuse and the violence that men enact on women. Madeline Miller writes in this wonderful, poetic register that is often punctuated by beautiful aphorisms, and they resonate, of course, not because Circe’s experience is so extraordinary but because it’s so common.

As a confused high-schooler, I took Latin classes, and as a confused young adult I chose a college that put a big emphasis on studying “the Classics.” Homer’s world of wars and gods and glory and vengeance never came alive to me for two reasons: I was not a good student and spent no time completing reading assignments, and because the whole toxic-masculinity template, this foundational ethos that fueled scores of empires great and small seemed so stupid. Who can kill the most people is a question like who can run the fastest or who can lift the heaviest thing: useful to know in limited contexts but not very useful to most parts of life and definitely a poor indicator of divine favor or ruling authority. What Miller does so well is take the same stories (dominant, masculine, exterior focused), and retell them through the eyes of the other, who is usually left out of the tale (inferior, feminine, interior focused). It’s a wonderful way of queering the text: reading Homer with the values that his culture tried their best to suppress. I may or may not return to the Iliad or Odyssey, but even if I do I imagine it will be Miller’s Circe, Miller’s Achilles, Miller’s Agamemnon, that will be the “real” versions of the character to me, not Homer’s. I hope that is the sweetest victory of all.

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