“When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.”—Circe by Madeline Miller is a feminist retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. While the classic epic poem written by Homer revolves around Odysseus, the revered Greek hero of the Trojan War and his journey back to his kingdom of Ithaca during which he briefly meets the nymph goddess, Circe, Miller’s version deals with Circe as the protagonist rather than Odysseus.
On one level, the book deals with the question of ‘Heroism’ and critically analyses one of classic literature’s most prominent heroes. Miller is not the first to talk about how battle, victory and physical strength have the tendency of creating toxic masculine figures, it is an issue feminists have been debating for years. The book grapples with this very question by narrating the ways in which Odysseus’ actions negatively impacted, to a point of near destruction, the women and children in his life.
“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”
The book grapples with this very question by narrating the ways in which Odysseus’ actions negatively impacted, to a point of near destruction, the women and children in his life.
Circe was born to the Titan Sun God, Helios, and nymph, Perse. While the Gods for years thought she was a nymph like her mother, she was more than that, and there lay the problem, she was a witch, someone who’s very existence was considered a threat by the Olympian Gods. As a result, she was banished from Helios’ court and forced to live alone, in exile on the island of Aeaea.
What the Gods do not realise, however, is that after being forced to live under the iron fist of powerful men all her life, for Circe, the exile was not a punishment but rather a catalyst for liberation. For the first time she is able to practice her magic without fear and thus emerges Circe, The Witch of Aeaea, feared by mortal men and Olympian Gods alike. Along with her witchcraft, she learns the power of music, herbs, animals and she is notably accompanied by lions and wolves.
Autonomy and power are two things that are often kept far from the reach of women, even in contemporary society. Circe serves as a reminder to all that those who work to ensure that women lack the resources necessary to ever achieve total emancipation, that despite all their efforts, women continue to rise. “Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
Some of the most powerful scenes of the book are those where Circe interacts with men, all different but yet so similar in their shrewd arrogance and irrevocable belief in their superiority; be it her father, the mighty Titan who banished his daughter who’s only crime was existing or the Olympian Messenger God, Hermes,her casual lover – who first taught Circe how men can be tricksters.
When Odysseus lands on the shores of Aeaea, she has long since honed the skill of (quite literally) turning men into pigs, after once been raped by a group of sailors who came to her island, hungry and tired, begging her to feed them. Every time since, the sailors who come to Aeaea try to sexually assault and steal from her but are turned into pigs. Odysseus’ crew are no exception. Soon after, however, Odysseus (who was the only one not transfigured) and Circe grow close and she turns his crew back to human.
They stay on her island, as Odysseus works to fix his ship, all the while in a relationship with Circe, one of emotional connections as well as ambiguity; but like everyone else who comes to Circe’s island, he too leaves, undertaking a long journey to his kingdom Ithaca, where he hopes to be received like a hero.
“Mother? Can you not be happy for me?”
“No, I wanted to shout at him. No, I cannot. Why must I be happy? Is it not enough that I let you go?”
When Odysseus leaves he is unaware that Circe is pregnant and thus begins the most trying times of her life, motherhood. Miller beautifully describes Circe and her struggles as a single mother on a deserted island. Her son is threatened by the goddess Athena and so Circe uses every single element of her witchcraft to ensure that he is protected and veiled away on the island, but Telegonus is her son after all, and just like Circe, he too yearns for freedom. This begins years-long conflict between the two, with Telegonus wanting to go to Ithaca to meet his father and Circe being fiercely protective. In the end, she accepts defeat.
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What follows is the reader quickly realising that Odysseus is dead, but he leaves behind not a legacy of love and respect for himself, but fear and hatred. In his last years, he is brutal and harsh towards everyone in his kingdom, doubting his wife’s loyalty, ridiculing his son who did not wish to inherit the throne. He mercilessly killed outsiders and his own subjects alike, ruling like a dictator, all the while reiterating his title of ‘hero’.
In the end, Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus’ wife and son come to Aeaea with Circe’s son Telegonus, seeking refuge on the island. The lives of all four of these characters are riddled with insecurities and pain, and they all tie back to Odysseus, the hero.
Telemachus, the son who was hated and mocked by his father for not being ‘man enough’ and Telegonus, the son who never met his father but had always hero-worshipped Odysseus only to discover that it was a mirage, realise that they have more in common than they could have ever dreamed about.
Penelope, the wife who Odysseus mistrusted and failed to be loyal towards and Circe, the lover he left so he could be hailed and celebrated, feel not a sense of jealousy but empathy and compassion towards the other.
The book serves as a reminder to us that the women related to powerful and popular leaders are not just one dimensional, secondary characters with no personalities, opinions or struggles of their own – they are simply relegated to the margins of history
The book serves as a reminder to us that the women related to powerful and popular leaders are not just one dimensional, secondary characters with no personalities, opinions or struggles of their own. They are simply relegated to the margins of history and discourse because once we look at how the actions of men we idealise affected these women, we realise who the true heroes really were.
Circe is thus an extremely important and highly recommended piece of feminist literature with powerful themes such as female friendship, self-determination, toxic masculinity, and personal growth.
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“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.”