Circe – A Witchy Goddess for Our Times

Image of Circe Book Cover

🏺The Greeks attributed both good times and misfortune to the whims of the gods.  With the world still in turmoil, we are all hoping the gods get tired soon of tormenting us poor humans – enough already.  We need some good times. Reading Madeleine Miller’s Circe has me wishing for some spells or maybe an errant lightning bolt.

If you are a fan of Greek mythology as I am, having D’Aulaire’s children’s book as one of my most treasured still on my shelf, you will enjoy the retelling of how the world was once occupied by goddesses and nymphs, with unusual powers.  Although a minor character in Greek storytelling, Circe is the focus of Miller’s story, as she interacts with her father, the Sun, and Odysseus on his travels.  Miller cleverly weaves in other gods – Hermes, Athena, the Titans – as well as lesser known humans with skills – Daedalus, the architect and father of Icarus, as they interact with the main character.  The minotaur makes a brief appearance as Circe’s nephew, and Medea as her niece.

Impatient for a resolution to some of the teasing narrative, I often flipped to google to remind myself how the story progresses in the famous Greek poems. Why was Athena so worried about Circe’s son?  How was the famously beautiful Helen related?  Whatever happened to poor Prometheus and his liver? Who was Achilles’ lover?

But Miller has her own agenda for retelling the old tales with Circe as the heroine, “ a reclamation of one of myth’s reviled women.” as noted by author Clare Messud in her review of the book. Annalisa Quinn for NPR says: “{Circe is } a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it.”

Though most readers may recall Circe from her dealings in the Odyssey,  Miller extrapolates a world from the few short lines from Homer’s poem to create more of her life, from her lonely childhood with Helios, the sun, as her scorching father, her first romance with a human and later a true love with Odysseus. Circe’s discovery and development of her magical powers gives her the well earned accolade of witch and her heritage makes her a goddess.

I downloaded Circe to my phone in 2018, when it was first published, but have not felt the urge to read it until now.  I’m glad I did.  The story was entertaining and flowed easily.  I knew how the story ended, but I persisted to finish.  From the pages, I noted a few lines relevant to me today I might not have appreciated two years ago:

“Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things, is another that waits to tear the world in two.”

 

“…the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood grew overnight. In the pantry jars of oil and wine, bowls of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”  A dream come true.

 

“Your wife sounds like a clever woman {says Circe to Odysseus}. {He answers} – She is. I cannot account for the fact that she married me, but since it is to my benefit, I try not to bring it to her attention.”

 

“What was the fight over? Let me see if I can remember the list.  He ticked his fingers. Vengeance, Lust, Hubris, Greed, Power.  What have I forgotten? Ah yes, vanity and pique.”

 

 

 

The Starless Sea

I had expected the unusual from Erin Morgenstern after reading her Night Circus, but The Starless Sea goes beyond my expectations for strange and complicated. The book has elements of Scheherazade in her storytelling, and bits of Lewis Carroll in her references and visits to fantastic worlds, but the story Morganstern most reminded me of – even referencing it in the beginning of her book – was Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

Just as in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Lost Books, Morgenstern creates her own secret underground library and a mystery involving the hero and books, as well as their pages and words, sifting them through a tangential plot sometimes hard to follow. If you have read The Westing Game, you might see some of its elements too.

But it’s the many stories, not necessarily the one following the main characters, that become pieces that can be taken by themselves – fairy tales of fantastic places and sometimes horrible creatures. I was tempted to skip over these chapters to follow the main line, but after a while they seduced me into reading, and then I wasn’t so concerned about Zachary Rawlins, the graduate student on a quest – I knew he’d be back somewhere in later pages as the time warp flexed.

If all this sounds wild and ambiguous, it is – probably because the book is written that way too. The pages are crammed with symbolism – The Owl King, a sea of honey, magic doors – mixed with real places – the New York Public Library, posh hotels, and a professional fortune teller. Read it if you dare, but be prepared to get lost. In the end, I thought I caught a moral from the Never-ending Story, but maybe I just imagined it.

Review of the Night Circus: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2011/10/06/the-night-circus/