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October 2019: Circe (Miller)

posted Nov 8, 2019, 6:04 PM by East Bay Smith Club
Our October meeting was quite exciting, as we had to relocate to avoid PG&E’s
planned power outages.  Fortunately, we found an island of electricity at
Sherrill’s house, and several members used the opportunity to recharge their
cell phones before returning to their own darkened domiciles.  Fortunately,
our book selection prompted a lively discussion, so there was plenty of time
to get batteries back to full strength.

Our book for the month was Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, an epic tale
spanning thousands of years in the life of a Greek immortal: Circe, goddess
of magic. The child of the Titan Helios and the naiad Perse, Circe spends
a lonely childhood in the halls of her grandfather, the Titan Oceanus.
Circe is largely rejected and ignored by her parents and siblings, since she
is less lovely than her mother and the other nymphs and she seems to have
little power compared to her Titan forebearers.   To break her isolation,
she befriends a mortal fisherman.  In an attempt to win his affections,
Circe experiments with magic and discovers that she has a talent for it.
However, the tragic results of her sorcery bring down the wrath of the
Olympian Gods, who consider her use of potions a threat to their dominance.
In response, Helios exiles his daughter to the island of Aiaia, where she
hones her magical abilities and develops her psychological resilience and
independence.  Though she spends most of her days in solitude, fate and
interfering immortals bring others her way, most significantly the wandering
warrior Odysseus, who is slowly making his way back from the siege of Troy.

Madeline Miller is a scholar of antiquities and Circe has small, though
significant, roles in a number of ancient Greek myths and epics.   Her
origins, characteristics and personality vary from telling to telling;
however, she chiefly functions as a source of danger and temptation to male
heroes.  She is often depicted luring visitors in with food and drink, only
to use her magic to rob them of their humanity (turning them into swine or
other animals).   Some see her as a cautionary tale against the dangers of
drunkenness or, even, prostitution.  Oddly, one could say that Miller’s
decision to place Circe at the center of her own story is equally as
transformative, turning the goddess from something quiet monstrous into
something much more fully human.  The novel is as much a tale of mental and
emotional development as it is an epic adventure.  In fact, many of our
members appreciated the book primarily as a story of a woman’s life, a
journey of self-discovery that wasn’t just about negotiating fraught
relationships with family, friends and romantic partners (though there’s
certainly a fair share of that).  At heart, Circe is an exploration of
self-empowerment, self-mastery and, ultimately (and quite dramatically at
the end), self-definition.

Everyone at the meeting said they enjoyed the book, and a few went as far
as to say they loved it.  For some, Miller’s poetic language and mastery of
the Greek mythical landscape was almost irresistibly enticing.  For others,
it was almost too much.   Setting the novel in the world of gods and goddess
tended to exaggerate everything.  Emotions like vengeance, envy and lust
were taken to the extreme, and the consequences of these emotions were
dramatic and lasted for generations.  Sometimes the resulting chaos,
especially as it affected the lives of Circe’s colorful siblings, seemed a
like a soap opera or, perhaps,  like the “Real Housewives” of the Aegean.
However, one could argue, these parts of the novel match the exaggerated
feel of many of its classical sources, and at times they provided a welcome
break from the nuanced and sensitive character study that made up the core
of the book.   

We definitely found plenty to talk about concerning the motivations of the
characters and the wisdom of their decisions.   We argued over how
sympathetic various characters were, and whether or not the tone of the book
was pessimistic or optimistic.   Judging from the discussion, I would
suspect that the novel will most appeal to readers who are already in love
with, or at least intrigued by, the classical myths and literature of
ancient Greece.   Two plays about Circe written in ancient Athens have been
lost, and Madeline Miller’s modern take on this fascinating character does a
lot to help keep her in the literary landscape and to reassess the role she
may play within it.