60 Books in 2019 #5: Circe By Madeline Miller

The stories of Ancient Greek myth aren’t new to me. I’ve loved them since childhood. One of the most checked out books, that I looked at over and over again was an illustrated encylopedia of gods and heroes. I played at being Athena in my imagination for ages. My long term obsession with retellings began with Disney’s Hercules. Revising myth to make it fit a new world is part of what’s fun about it.

I picked up Circe knowing at least something of an idea about what I was getting into. Circe, the daughter of Helios, lover of Odysseus, who turned sailors who dared trespass onto her island into hogs, is usually shown as the villainess, the femme fatale, the witch, beautiful, dangerous and merciless.

She’s the perfect character for a “the situation is much more nuanced than that,” retelling. And that’s what Miller gives us here. Circe is our narrator and our heroine. She is banished from her father’s halls to pay for the sin of kindness in comforting Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus to give to mortals. She turns her Aiaia, her prison, into a paradise, but it is invaded by passerby, she is raped and she takes her revenge on men. She falls in love with one and that’s where the book gets good.

Once Odysseus exits, and the stories we know stop, after all, Greek myth kind of stagnates after Troy and the Odyssey. (The Romans take it from there.) But there, Circe bears the child conceived during Odysseus’s stay on her island. Eventually, Telemachus and Penelope come to her. The relationship and makeshift family the three of them form, eventually, is the heart of this book.

It’s episodic in nature, as most such revisions are, but gloriously so. Miller wrote a great book, and I’m looking forward to picking up more of hers, because I think she has a really fun perspective on these myths that I’ve loved since I was a child. (It was hard for me to see Athena as a villain though.)

Up next is If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. I’m planning on diving deep on Baldwin this year, so wish me luck.

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