I’ve loved Greek Mythology for as long as I can remember. One of my older sisters told me myths as bedtime stories (I still remember first hearing the tale of Baucis and Philemon from her). My family had a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology tattered from much reading. And mythology has influenced my writing, including the novel I’m working on now. So I was quite intrigued when I saw Madeline Miller’s Circe ** at my local indie bookshop. When I read the first page, though, somehow I wasn’t pulled in to read more. I’m not sure why – it may be that her vision of the Greek gods and Titans wasn’t mine. But when the pandemic hit, I wanted to support my local bookstore, and so I ordered it from them – it was the first book, but not the last, that I got via “curbside delivery.”
This time when I opened that first page, I was hooked. I think this speaks of the power of Miller’s writing, and also the power of commitment – that book was now mine; I was literally, though in a small way, invested in it. Whatever the reason, I was pulled in and didn’t want to stop (it happened again, when I glanced inside to write this review).
Her vision of the Greek divinities is indeed different from mine, which has formed over decades. But her portrayal is vivid, visceral, and immediate – you feel in their presence. The Titans and gods in her story are so very human – sometimes petty and squabbling. But they can also be chilling, even terrifying.
From the time I read of Circe as a kid (in Edith Hamilton), I always felt some sympathy for her. After all, the way she treated Odysseus’ sailors felt like poetic justice. Madeline Miller has made Circe deeply sympathetic – starting as a child hungering for her father’s attention and basking in his literal radiance. (He is Helios, Titan of the sun, and his gaze can warm – or scorch.)
I loved how the writer wove so very many beings from mythology into the story. It was startling to realize Circe’s brother was Medea’s father. And how had I forgotten, or not known, that Pasiphaë, mother of the Minotaur, was Circe’s sister? I’d always thought of bull-besotted Pasiphaë as cursed and somewhat pitiful. The author has transformed her into something – someone – quite different. With Pasiphaë comes the tale of Daedalus, the Labyrinth, and the Minotaur – no longer distant and misty, but close, vivid, and as frightening as a bull-headed monster should be.
Prometheus also appears; it’s one of my very few regrets in the book that we don’t see or hear of him again. And of course, Odysseus plays a major role. But his appearance is not the end of Circe’s story. In some ways, though he comes in late in the book, he marks a new beginning for Circe.
I highly recommend the novel, not only because of its Greek Mythology, but because it is a novel of rich story and characters, centered on a vibrant female narrator.
When I finished Circe, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the world of mythology. I pulled out an old book of mine that seemed promising – The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley.
It’s a slim, dense, scholarly book that uses the Iliad and Odyssey as sociological documents to learn about the environment Odysseus lived in (which the author believes was Iron Age Greece). It feels dated, which is no shame to the book – it was first published in the 1950s and revised in the 1970s, so no wonder there. But it is jarring, even repellant, when he refers to some modern-day non-industrial cultures as “primitive” or “savage” – even if only in quoting the titles of works he refers to. He does have some interesting insights into life of very ancient Greece. But I did not enjoy reading it enough to whole-heartedly recommend it.
What I can whole-heartedly recommend is The Trojan War – A New History by Barry Strauss.
His work draws not only on much more recent archaeology, but also on other sources including Hittite and Egyptian texts, to make a compelling case that the Trojan War was not only real, but occurred in the Bronze Age (earlier than the Iron Age, and in the general period Homer said it did). Even better, he paints scenes as colorful and dramatic as any novel, then expands on them with what he’s gleaned from other sources, while treating the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey as real people with real, Bronze-age motives. He not only treats Homer with respect, but helps make that world come vividly to life. His book also includes a very helpful timeline (for those of us who need help keeping the Bronze Age separate from the Iron Age and from Homer’s time), and a series of maps with ever-increasing detail, which give the reader a firm footing on where and when the Trojan War took place.
I’m sorry to see that Barry Strauss’ book may not be available in print, though it does appear to be available as an e-book, and I recommend it as a good read.
For more about the archaeology of the Trojan War, PBS has an excellent show: Secrets of the Dead: The Real Trojan Horse; Barry Strauss is one of the experts who speaks. And the magazine Archaeology has online an interactive map of the many layers of Ancient Troy, with context: Uncovering Troy
The book Circe is about so much more than the Trojan War and Odysseus, though. It begins when the world is young and the wounds of the Titans’ war with the Olympians are still raw. Hesiod’s Theogony tells of that war and of the birth of the world and all its divine beings. I read two translations of the Theogony, one by Norman O. Brown and one by Dorothea Wender; they returned me to the world of myth and wonder. And there, near the end, Circe is mentioned, bringing me back full circle.
If I were to do it over, I’d skip The World of Odysseus and read Barry Strauss’ The Trojan War instead. And I’m glad I reread the Theogony. But it’s Madeline Miller’s Circe which lingers with me. I look forward to reading it again someday.
*All book cover photos are of my copies. I could find no art credit for the left-hand Theogony.
**The word nerd in me was pleased and surprised to read that Circe’s name means Hawk. The masculine form, Circos (Kirkos in Greek) is a particular kind of hawk named for its circular flight. Circe, Madeline Miller’s novel says, was named for her golden eyes and piercing cry.