The author of The Song of Achilles returns to tales of the ancient Greek gods to retell the story of Circe, who was the daughter of Helios – god of the son, and Perse – a water nymph. Circe was liked by neither her parents nor her siblings – as Miller interprets it, Circe was too given to second-guessing the cruelty of the gods, and moreover, she had a human-sounding voice, which was anathema to them. Eventually she was banished by her father to the deserted island of Aiaia. She was forbidden to leave, but at least the island was filled with amenities, as befitting even an outcast god.
Circe made peace with her isolation by tending to the island, teaching herself magic, and seeing to the occasional visitors – both god and mortal – who found the island. She even had occasional lovers – Hermes, the messenger of the gods; Daedalus, the mortal whose son Icarus flew too close to the sun; and finally Odysseus, when he was on his way back to Ithaca after the Trojan War.
It is Odysseus who, unbeknownst to him, gave her a son, thus enabling her to share some of the life of mortals in a way most gods could not.
Discussion: It seemed to me that there were several underlying themes of this story. One was the relative powerlessness of women – even goddesses – vis-à-vis physically stronger men, and how men abused that power. The male gaze in this book is shown as primarily a predatory one, and Circe, alone and undefended on her island, was only able to thwart them after learning some hard lessons from experience, and training to develop her magic. According to Homer in The Odyssey, Circe turned Odysseus’ men to swine in order to make them forget their native land. But in Miller’s version, Circe turns them to swine, as she had turned other male mortals to swine, because the nature of their (mis)behavior merited that fate.
A second theme is the inferiority in many senses of gods compared to mankind. Miller often has Circe comment on the difference between gods and mortals, and gods invariably suffer by the comparison. For example:
“This is how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.”
“It was true what Hermes said. Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no mater how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.”
Moreover, the gods miss out on the essence of living, which is why they so often try to experience it vicariously through mankind. Circe thinks about this when a mortal says to one he loves, “It will be all right.” She muses, “He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.” This is what the gods will never know.
Finally, Miller shares thoughts about parenthood, also showing mortals favorably in this light. For instance, Athena, goddess of war, seemed in some ways a “parent” of Odysseus: “She fought to see him lifted among his people, for her honor and his. To hear him tell the tales of his victories, of the deaths they had dealt to the Trojans together. He was her favorite.” But for Athena, Odysseus could never be at peace: “He must live in action’s eye, bright and polished, always striving and seeking, always delighting her with some new twist of cleverness, some brilliance he summoned out of the air.” Circe observed: “Gods pretend to be parents . . . but they are children, clapping their hands and shouting for more.”
Circe, by contrast, from her own experience, knew that parenthood was more complicated. It was about worrying, patience, and endurance, as well as pride. Her son with Odysseus was a very difficult baby, and she remarked: “A thousand years I had lived, but they did not feel so long as Telegonus’ childhood.”
Later, when Telegonus was growing up and like many offspring of single parents is somewhat obsessed by the one who is not there, he asks Circe who his father was and why he left. Circe ruefully and astutely observed: “The question was like an oak seedling, I thought. A simple, green shoot above, but underneath the taproot burrowed, spreading deep. I took a breath.”
Parenthood is also shown through the lens of Telemachus, the son Odysseus had with Penelope. Telemachus didn’t know his father well, so Circe told him stories about Odysseus. One was about the time Odysseus encountered the Cyclops on an island. Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was Outis which means “No one.” When Telemachus attacked the Cyclops and the enraged creature roared for help, his fellows did not come, because he yelled: “No one has blinded me! No one is escaping!” Later, back in Ithaca, Odysseus scorned his son for not wanting to follow in his martial footsteps. But in fact, as Circe observed, Telemachus turned down Athena’s offer to be the successor of his father because he “chose to be no one.” Thus, he became in some ways his father after all.
Evaluation: Madeline Miller plumbs excellent material from which to fashion her retellings, but she also exercises skill and nuance to add intriguing insights to what the ancients told us about the gods. She also employs a prose style that reflects the elegance of the spellbinding ancient Greek epic poems from which she takes her stories. And it is always illuminating, it seems to me, to hear what a female makes of the same story told by men.
Published by Lee Boudreaux Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2018