“I definitely have a thing for character development” whispered my 15-year old daughter, who has been performing on (or watching) various stages since she was five. We were both drying our eyes on a Sunday afternoon in a post-theatre trance where we didn’t want to leave our seats.
“Yeah, exactly,” I smiled and leaned back into my comfy seat in the dark theatre. To myself, I thought, Wait! That’s the quality of the finest books too.
Which brings me to my muse of the week, the book Circe by Madeline Miller. (Only very minor spoilers in this blog, but a heads-up for anyone who has this enchanting perfect-for-a-snowy-rainy-afternoon book on their bedside.)
I know I’m late to the Circe party (It was first published by Little, Brown and Company in April of 2018), but I deeply enjoyed reading Circe by Madeline Miller because Miller gave a minor female character in Greek mythology a mind and an inner life–and earned over time growth. Circe is the retelling of Odysseus’s enchantress lover who turned the famous heroes’ band of men into pigs, but Miller gives the myth new life, constant surprises and satisfying depth.
For me the plot came alive after Circe is banished to an island named Aeaea by her father Helios, the god of the Sun, who can make logs burn from a mere glance but ultimately cannot make his daughter cower to his rule. The proud God, like most of the Gods and Goddesses, is all about lavish feasts, sweeping divine pronouncements and what psychologists might call an insatiable emphasis on“extrinsic motivations.” He at times has chummy moments with his lesser-pedigreed daughter, but ultimately cannot forgive Circe’s unwillingness to bend to his words.
In exile, Circe finds a glorious freedom (after her initial loneliness) that schools her in self mastery. On her island, Circe makes a study of the gifts she is only just realizing as an enchantresses and adopts diligent new habits, morning walks with flocks of the island’s animals including a lion who pads after her. Circe is after practical teachings and gains more and more proficiency with the islands herbs and creates experimental concoctions brewing on her stove. She gravitates around her mistake-of-a-discovery that she can bring dead things back to life but is equally terrified with her ability to transform palace-hall nymphs into wretched beasts with the lowest of her thoughts. More and more, she struggles with the ethical meaning of the nature of power—and of unintended consequences.
The scenes where passing sailors learn she is alone and attack her naïve and open generosity are gripping. These are the chilling events that bring her to learn spells that turn future visitors instantly to snorting pigs. She learns the steep cost of her lack of discernment (not just for herself but for others) the hard way and it is in this aftermath that she meets the emotionally-astute Odysseus, a fascinating character who we see in many ways in Circe’s eyes.
I loved the main character Circe most of all, but a few other characters took my breath away.
- Her passages on Prometheus— for whom one act of courage demanded many more of the same. Miller brought Circe’s punished “uncle” to vivid three dimension and is worth noting. “[His skin] smelled of green moss drenched with rain.”
- Hermes, Circe’s elusive messenger-lover during her loneliest years on the island, is a charming rogue who insouciantly spreads his missives and messages but shrugs his shoulders at whatever may come of his communications with one predictable quality. His skin is never in the game.
- A less nuanced character is Circe’s sister Pasiphaë, who is seriously scary, idolizes only surface beauty and mocks Circe for her ardent hand-wringing over any moral quandary. In the golden shimmering halls of her sister’s palatial grounds, Circe finds the greatest exile of all surrounded by people, games and parties.
- Daedalus– a sad character whose remarkable inventiveness—and aptitude for knowledge cannot save him from the vengeance of Circe’s sister: “A golden cage is still a cage” he laments.
- Penelope was my second favorite character after Circe. She is developed more deeply than the ancient poet Hesiod ever could have dreamed. Penelope is perhaps the best surprise in the book–and it’s one worth waiting for. I’m thinking with relative certainty that she would be my daughter’s favorite character.
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes in the book in the mind of Circe as she is coming to fully appreciate Penelope’s deep wells of strength.
“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.”