Circe was recommended by a friend and trusted teacher: it is a great read and a feminist experience. In the spirit of Carol Ann Duffy, it retells classical Grecian narrative from a relatively sidelined female figure, Circe. Like I’ve said in previous reviews, people love the retelling of classical mythology, especially in this fractured age. It is a connection to our past often denied. Miller not only employs her Classical education with a subtle touch, but she weaves it in a spirit that I believe would resound with the American spirit, if not most of the West.
Of some side interest at this point, Circe is apparently pronounced the Grecian ‘Kirk-kay’. Of course, a pronunciation of more contemporary expectation would be ‘Sir-Say’, alluding to the morally grey/certainly malicious Cersei Lannister. This allusion is potent, at least for me.
The seminal event in the opening is the meeting between Prometheus, perhaps the most famous (and damned) of the Titans, and Circe, an underloved daughter and nymph of the sun God Helios. Witnessing the torture of Prometheus resolves Circe to rebel against the constraints of her family, and therefore against the expectations or interests of others. She conforms and judiciously submits to the role of a mother, but her desire for independence felt really very Western to me.
The skill of Miller’s story, however, is to make a morally grey protagonist both attractive and believable. At her heart, Circe wants to be good in the face of surviving in a desperately competitive world.
Circe’s beguiling power is her magic, a cunning talent that overcomes her weakness of position and power. Her abilities to transform others into beasts both mundane and monstrous terrifies us, yet she uses her powers as a response to abuse. As a contemporary aside, what has been seen to undermine some feminist campaigning is that female interests and concerns can sometimes risk becoming class-specific: the MeToo campaign resonated widely not just because it depicted casual abuse of women accepted in society, but that powerful women were unable to resist abuse (or at least could only do so at destructive cost). Circe’s attack on her foes, therefore, feels particularly just and grievously righteously in these circumstances, for me at least.
Despite her boisterous defiance, Circe’s submission into motherhood is Miller’s greatest triumph. The pain of love for her child (that she would flay her skin! Shades of Prometheus again…) makes her distinctly human. That the last 3/5ths of the text involve her being in exile, such inner experience is well-paced and is particularly daring considering that Grecian myths are framed in action. In doing so, Circe actualises herself, and becomes wise and estimable having been once so naïve and runtish.
In the face of human attempts at dignity, Miller captures particularly well a sense of what the Greek Gods could be like: capricious and wanton. Needing to be pampered, requiring reassurance, almost all the Gods represent the worst excesses of the civilized consciousness. It is their comparison to Circe that remains with me the most.
Another point of contemporary interest in Greek mythology is the expectation that the hero would die. It is a current Western ideal that the hero is rewarded for their bravery with personal improvement and lasting position. The Greeks, however, would require great personal sacrifice, and often death, if someone wished to seek success or position outside their station. Odysseus is a man who seeks both, and yet has rank. He is a deeply interesting character, and his actions and events interplay classical and contemporary expectations. I like that he had shorts legs, as well.
I was left with some big questions on finishing this book. To what extent is morality human? How civilizing is civilization? Does the fact that one day we will end give us our greatest meaning? Within these cosmological questions sits a story of love, of kindness and power battling the urge for survival and revenge. A very good book, and an author to whom I will surely return.