Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Circe - Madeline Miller

As mentioned in the previous post I bought 'Circe' with no particular expectations because I was short of something to read (I don't like Kindles but I'm not ungrateful for the kindle app on my phone). Finding it was every bit as good as it's good reviews (I've only read good reviews, but I assume there are some negative ones around, there always are) was a total bonus.

Circe is probably best known from the Odyssey (she's the one who turns the sailors into pigs, and with whom Odysseus stops for a year), but she appears in other myth cycles too, some more or less lost - which raises all sorts of tantalising possibilities. Miller has gathered them altogether and filled in the gaps to create this feminist version of her life - and it's brilliant.

Circe is the eldest daughter of the Titan sun god, Helios, and the nymph Perse, and in this version at least, the most unsatisfactory. The least attractive ambitious, diplomatic, or clever, although all of these things are relative, she sits on the sidelines until she discovers her gift for witchcraft. It's something that brings down the wrath of both her father and Zeus, so it's off into exile she goes.

For a lonely and unhappy girl this really isn't the worst thing that could happen, it gives her the chance to hone her magic and for a while find peace. Islands attract visitors though, so whilst Circe might more or less be trapped, it's hard to stop visitors, and male visitors finding a lone woman aren't always very well behaved. Which makes turning them into pigs a reasonable course of action.

When Odysseus turns up however he's a welcome diversion from a growing boredom, and he also provides a son, Telegonus. Whilst reading 'Circe' I spent quite a lot of time googling characters who's names I knew, but who I didn't particularly remember, and more who I had never heard of - which provided some spoilers. Telegonus is one of those.

A postscript to the story of Odysseus is that he's destined to be killed by his son, he assumes that this means Telemachus, but it doesn't. It's an interesting postscript to the story of Penelope as well, and I'm curious as to why Margaret Atwood doesn't persue it in 'The Penelopiad'.

One of the things I really liked about this book is Millers treatment of Penelope, here she's a very clever woman, set on keeping her own council. It's a shared intelligence that ties her to Odysseus- which makes sense of their relationship. Her version of an Odysseus who returns to Ithaca as a paranoid, brutalised, survivor no longer fit for civilian life makes sense too. It certainly makes sense of his order to kill the maids that so bothers Atwood (and bothers Circe too).

The most intriguing thing about this book though for me was the question of all those lost stories. The ones that have survived were written by men, and focus on men, but they came from an oral tradition - so what stories did women tell each other?

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