Reimagined myth | Books

'Circe' by Madeline Miller: With hair streaked like a lynx

Changed utterly: John William Waterhouse's oil, ‘Circe Invidiosa’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Circe, the Greek goddess whose special skill lay in effecting metamorphoses, has all the qualifications for being hailed as the archetypal female artist by posterity. With her dissident creativity — she was fond of turning men into fawning animals — a power which made her both a “witch”, eating men like air, and an artist with fearful agency, Circe is one figure from the Greek pantheon who was waiting to be discovered and given ‘her’ story.

Madeline Miller has done this with Circe, where this minor Greek goddess, whom we otherwise meet briefly in Homer’s Odyssey as one of the temptresses who delayed Odysseus’ return home from Troy, is made into a full-blown, modern-day hero, defying her pre-ordained fate and moulding her own.

Fate is a pivotal concept in Greek mythology, holding men to ransom by threatening them with arbitrary consequences, which escalate in severity till they reach the ‘ultimate’, death. Gods, being death-proof, escape with minor lashes.

The novel turns on the premise that immortality, which translates into stagnation, is a fate worse than death. It just gives the gods limitless power, which they use indiscriminately to manipulate fellow immortals and the mortals at their mercy; and endless life, which plays out in loops, making them a particularly dull lot. Incapable of change, they are programmed to repeat themselves through eternity.

Hawk’s voice

Circe is born an immortal, being the daughter of sun god Helios, but she is different from the beginning. In the novel, her parents reject her at birth, with her mother crinkling her nose at her gender, and her father assigning her a mortal prince in marriage because she is too ungodlike in mien to deserve a god or even a hero. (Her defects include “hair streaked like a lynx” and a thin, piercing, hawk-like voice, which earns her the name that denotes the bird. To her kin, it is the voice of a mortal.) Branded an outcast, Circe is best suited to give us an insider’s disillusioned view of all that goes on in the divine halls.

The picture she paints of the holy family is ghastly — her father is the ace patriarch, witless in his inability to see anything beyond his own blaze; her mother Perse is a cold fish whose only weapon in the competitive immortal corridors is her sexual prowess (“She turned before him [Helios] slowly, showing the lushness of her figure as if she were roasting on a spit”); her siblings are a perfect combination of both, with monstrous egos, a perpetual disdain for mortals but an insatiable desire nonetheless to meddle in their affairs.

Motivelessly malign

Circe builds up her case character by character until we begin to wonder whether immortality is overrated, more so because the gods seem no different from us, but with an added dose of motiveless malignity towards one and all.

Circe, who in her position as a disdained immortal, had always made common cause with mortals, whose fading skins she finds more fascinating than the marbled perfection of her kind, rebels against her father and is banished to the deserted island of Aiaia, where she develops her full potential as a sorceress.

'Circe' by Madeline Miller: With hair streaked like a lynx

In Greek mythology, women are often transformed into flora or fauna when the gods hound them for sex. In Miller’s story, it is Circe who changes into pigs the sailors who land on her island asking for shelter and then try to rape her. (In a sentence I loved, Circe says that men actually make terrible pigs because real pigs are clever.)

Thus, Miller furnishes a reason for a bare fact given by Homer — that Circe had turned Odysseus’ men into swine — and in the process humanises her. Indeed, the novel is aimed at making a woman out of a goddess, in the sense of an immortal being, and then making a goddess, in the sense of creator, of the woman. True, she can weave only spells and tapestries, which makes her only a minor maker, but she is a maker still.

Which is not what can be said of the destructive gods and the mortal heroes made in the gods’ image. She is also a maker in being a mother, a single mother at that, although she can be annoyingly over-protective towards her son, Telegonus.

Finding the self

In her effort to make Circe into the opposite of the blustering gods, Miller often ends up making her seem sanctimoniously mousy. Circe doesn’t stop having doubts about herself even when she has repeatedly falsified her own notions of her limitations — her self-flagellation seems masochistic after a point. I almost missed the import of Circe’s final act — in which she asserts her will decisively to become her true self, a mortal — hedged in as it is by the reiterations of her worthlessness.

Circe’s relationship with the men in her life, Daedalus, Odysseus, Odysseus’ son, Telemachus (possible in the world of an unageing immortal), is presented interestingly, but it does not have that painful desire that throbbed like a wound in every sentence describing the love between Achilles and Patroclus in Miller’s brilliant previous novel, The Song of Achilles.

Yet there might be a point here — the flame-like love of Achilles and Patroclus was young and unequal and all-consuming: Circe matches her men wit by wit, and she is too much in possession of herself to be consumed by passion.

In order to qualify as a fitting companion to Circe, the hero has to be adequately feminised. Telemachus, Circe’s final lover, is the antithesis of the chest-thumping alpha male of Greek mythology. By making him patient, unambitious, selfless and a good listener, Miller undoes the negative image of Telemachus as a dull homebody compared to his adventurous, super-intelligent father, an image largely created by Tennyson’s very ‘male’ poem, ‘Ulysses’. Yet, there seems to be an element of wish-fulfilment at the end of novel, where Telemachus is a totally docile, almost gormless, figure who follows Circe around like a dog, and the two bring forth female children only.

Circe; Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury, ₹499

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 6:21:06 AM |

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