Circe

Madeline Miller’s Circe is not a bad book, but it is disappointing in a number of ways. It takes for its first-person hero the witch of Aiaiai, Circe, a daughter of the sun-god Helios, turner of men into pigs, and eventual lover of Odysseus. It is a sort of riposte to The Odyssey so it’s unsurprising that it takes the time to dismantle the old heroes and gods one by one: Odysseus, Achilles, Hermes, Athena, Helios, most of the other nymphs, demigods, and gods, are portrayed as frivolous and vain, as well as Jason, Herakles, Ajax, who are depicted (amusingly) as hulking bores. This is all fair enough; the gods are mercurial and immature at the best of times, and quite pathetically petty at their worst, and the heroes are nothing if not unwise. On this level her treatment is welcome, humanising and critical of the often misogynistic and merely vacuous penchants of the gods. Her accounts of Prometheus, of the halls of Helios, of Daedalus, and of obtaining the Trigon’s tail intermittently rise to imaginatively rich visions. What is surprising is how dull Circe herself is. She rarely leaves the island on which she is imprisoned, remaining preoccupied with age-old resentments, a painful and impotent motherhood, and quite a lot of domestic duties for someone who might be expected to employ witchcraft to relieve herself (and the reader) of such minutiae. This leaves the novel as a self-conscious contrast to the exciting adventures undertaken by Odysseus, in what seems to me a rather anti-feminist approach to the character. It reminded me of nothing so much as Beckett’s Malone Dies, wherein a senile man awakens in an unfamiliar room and never leaves it, spending the entire novel reflecting on (or possibly inventing) grievances from the distant past. One gets the sense, early on, that Miller regards Homer as being akin to Helios, herself akin to Circe, and the consequent feeling of grievance and victimhood, of the triviality of mortality but also of her part in perpetuating mortal trivialities, never really leaves the novel. The monotonous style, alternating among about three sentence structures (and using “for” as a conjunction far too often) can make Circe’s complaints sound a drumbeat. By subordinating herself to Homer’s immortality, Miller dooms her own book to the position in which it ultimately finds itself: as a derivative hanger-on to the genius of gods. But there’s no reason it need be this way. One could imagine another Circe, less woe-is-me and plagued by doubt, more assertive and subversive, simply more nuanced, in her often courageous dealings with the gods. Instead we’re left with a fairly one-sided embittered exile, who undermines herself even in her rare moments of strength.

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