On the Facebook reader group, I heard a lot about Circe by Madeline Miller over the last year. Though I was enamored by its beautiful cover and an exotic title, I kept away because I thought it was one of those novels which would be highly demanding, my time and brainpower. I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment because my daughter was still demanding most of my time. It took a lockdown and a now less dependent child for me to finally pick this book up. And I am glad I did it. Circe follows the story of the Goddess daughter of the Sun God Helios and the nymph Perse over the course of several hundred years before leaving the reader on the verge of a further story.
“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”
Circe had always been different. With her frail human-like voice and yellow eyes, she was the least wanted child of her parents. Despised by everyone in her family of Gods for her distinctness, Circe grows up at her father’s feet in the hopes of receiving his affections at least once. Neglected by him and her mother alike, she finds support and solace in her younger brother, whom she mothers when their own mother didn’t want him. But even he left her when his fate beckoned. Alone again, Circe started to spend most of her time away from everyone. She came face to face with Glaucos, a fisherman with whom she fell in love, on a secluded island she used to spend her time on. Her love for him became so profound that she magics him into a God. Once transformed, he, like others, neglects Circe and instead makes Scylla, a nymph the object of his affections. Enraged, Circe turns Scylla into a monster and finally discovers her powers of witchcraft. Threatened by her newfound powers, Zeus banishes her to the island of Aiaia for the rest of her life. But what an irony it was for her, she was free, yet she was a captive of the boundaries of her land.
At Aiaia, Circe began a new life. She honed her skills of witchcraft and made the island her home. Although she was banished, she wasn’t denied meeting with people as long as they came to her. Daedalus was amongst the first persons to reach her, on the behest of her sister, to take her away for some time and help with her childbirth. Circe didn’t share a hospitable relationship with her sister, but she still went, and what she saw was beyond her imagination. While she mended her sister’s deeds, she also had a short affair with Daedalus. He was one of those for whom her heart ached for, even years later. As quickly as she had started from Aiaia did she return. She had only Hermes, the trickster god, with whom she shared a no strings attached relationship, for her company then. Over the course of her life, Circe had suffered alone. So when the ship came, she was overjoyed to have someone in her house. She didn’t know then that mortals were no better than her family of Gods in treating her. Abused, she put her witchcraft to use and saw that no men survived. She was expecting the same ruthless men when Odysseus’s ship drew land on her island, but she hadn’t known he would be different. A year later, when she bid him goodbye, she held his seed and birthed a boy, Telegonus. She held him close enough to not let Odysseus know that he even existed. But fate had other plans for this tiny mortal. The Goddess of war, Athena seemed to have taken a disliking to him and was hell-bent on killing him. And all of Circe’s energies went into protecting her child, the child who grew up to leave her, to travel in search of his father and come back with his wife Penelope, and legitimate child Telemachus. Circe felt cornered on her own land, the land which had been hers for centuries, and only a confrontation would bring her peace. But was she ready for what would come with it?
“But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.”
I haven’t read anything or know about Greek mythology. So when I picked this book up, I hadn’t known what to expect except that it was a fantasy. I wasn’t biased to the tales and the characters in any manner and I am glad I read this book this way. Written in simple language, Circe is a masterpiece. However lucid the prose might be, it is extremely beautiful. No, it isn’t a poetic beauty, it is something that tugs at the heart with its simplicity. The story brings in many characters, strong ones and weak ones, but none steal Circe’s thunder. She shines the brightest. It’s admirable that the author doesn’t lose her sight and sticks to the plot despite a number of subplots. Circe’s hardships shape her course of life, her decisions a reflection of what she has faced, and her actions giving the Gods a run for their money and power. It is a powerhouse of Circe’s strengths, a woman of her own making, much like today’s times. A woman in this century could have easily been her, in fact, they are here to some extent, facing what she faced, discriminated on her looks, done away with as soon as the men realize that she can be a threat to them and seen as an object of lust and abuse. Much like Circe, the woman would rise, and claim her identity in a no man’s land, only if they allowed her that much liberty. Alas! Circe’s character arc is superbly written. From a loveless child to a bold young Goddess, from a loving sister to a lonely woman seeking love, from a meek witch living alone to a master of her art welcoming strangers into her house unknowing that they are at her mercy, from a banished nymph to a protecting mother, Miller draws out all her emotions and lays it bare for the readers. One would think that Gods wouldn’t have much depth, but then, hey, Circe wasn’t called the “Humane Goddess” for nothing. She felt more human than any of the other characters to me.
I kept wondering how the story would end because Gods apparently don’t die, and also wanting it not to end. I had no way to physically ascertain how much of the book was left since I was reading an ebook. But when I came to an end, I was overwhelmed, the way the climax reached me was seamless, like all throughout, I had been waiting for it to happen. For Circe to find what she was looking for all this time and letting go of what she never had the use for.