Monsters & Gods: Circe's story
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Second novels are tough, especially when the author's debut was highly acclaimed. This was the challenge facing Madeline Miller, whose "Song of Achilles" (2012) was a superb retelling of the legendary Greek hero's homoerotic love affair with Patrocles. Her second book "Circe" (Little, Brown, $27) is even more ambitious: a fictional autobiography of the immortal nymph and sorceress. Fortunately, Miller has triumphed with another excellent recreation of Greek mythology.
Miller does not simply recount what Homer's "Odyssey" and other ancient writings say about Circe. Instead, she weaves them in with her own imagination to create a fully realized character, beginning with her unhappy childhood at the court of her father, the Titan sun god, Helios, and his wife, Perse, a minor naiad. Circe is mocked for being "ugly" and having a "horrible," mortal-like voice. Her beautiful, cruel sister Pasiphae misses no chance to ridicule her. Circe is initially close to her younger brother Aeetes, but she is lonely and rebellious. The Titans have been overthrown by the Olympian gods, of whom Zeus is King. He has punished the Titan Prometheus for having given mortals fire, and cruelly tortures him. Circe defiantly comforts Prometheus, even giving him nectar to slake his thirst. She also seeks companionship from mortals.
She meets Glaucus, a fisherman, befriends him, and falls in love with him. Discovering her powers, she transforms him into a god. Once he is immortal, however, he becomes indifferent to her and is soon enchanted by another nymph, the beautiful Scylla. Jealous, Circe uses her sorcery to transform Scylla into a 12-headed monster. She and another monster, Charybdis, occupy islands on either side of a strait from where they devour sailors and destroy ships.
Alarmed by her powers and fearful, Zeus orders Helios to banish Circe to Aiaia, a lush island. There, she increases her knowledge of magical herbs and potions, surrounds herself with obedient lions and wolves, has an affair with Hermes, messenger of the Gods, who is charming, handsome, and untrustworthy. Dangerous men who arrive are transformed into swine.
She is summoned by Pasiphae to Crete. Pasiphae, married to King Minos, a mortal son of Zeus, is pregnant with the monstrous Minotaur, the product of her gleeful mating with a magnificent white bull. But she needs Circe to deliver the offspring. She does so, and with the help of Daedalus, builds a cage to contain him. Daedalus eventually creates the famous Labyrinth, where, as Circe foresees, the monster will terrorize all who come near it until Theseus slays him and escapes with the help of Ariadne.
Others who seek Circe's help are her niece Medea and Jason, who ask her to purify them. Medea, also a sorceress, is the daughter of Aeetes, ruler of Colchis and keeper of the Golden Fleece. Medea, to help Jason, has killed her brother. Circe complies with their request, but senses that Jason is not worthy of Medea's love and loyalty.
Her most famous visitors are Odysseus and his men, sailing home to Ithaca after having led the Greeks to victory in the Trojan War. Circe transforms the first group of sailors who approach her house into swine. One, however, has escaped, and warns Odysseus. Hermes intervenes and tells the Greek hero how to protect himself. Odysseus and Circe charm each other and begin an extended affair. His remaining men are fed and cared for. Eventually, however, he leaves for Ithaca. Unknown to him, Circe is pregnant and delivers their son, Telegonus, herself.
Like most offspring of gods and men, Telegonus is mortal. Circe is protective of him. As he grows to manhood, he wants to know more about his father. He is determined to sail to Ithaca. A fearful Circe acquiesces, but carefully casts spells to protect him.
Telegonus does not know what will happen when he reaches his father's kingdom, but Athena does. She and Circe engage in a fierce struggle over the boy's fate. Circe succeeds in protecting him, but cannot rest, fearing that the cold, gray-eyed warrior goddess will find a way to penetrate her defenses and harm her son.
The last part of the novel brings Odysseus's wife Penelope, their son Telemachus, and Telegonus to Aiaia and into Circe's life. Many truths are revealed, and each character confronts his/her destiny. The last chapters are thrilling and imaginative.
"Circe" conveys the fearsome world of classical Greek religion, a world filled with powerful, capricious, often cruel gods, who reside not only on Mount Olympus and in the heavens, but in rivers, streams, seas, woods and valleys. Humans may placate them with animal sacrifices and reverence, but those are often insufficient to prevent tragedy. It is a dark, frightening universe where terror may lurk at every turn.
With vivid, suspenseful prose, Miller also captures the dreadful ennui of immortality: each year the same as the thousands that came before it. Only meddling in the affairs of mortals provides the gods with any relief from boredom. Only by choosing sides in human conflict do the gods entertain themselves and settle their often petty rivalries.
Miller's Circe is a multi-faceted creature, intelligent, generous, often kind, but flawed. Courage is her greatest virtue, and she demonstrates that throughout this memorable novel. She is a Homeric hero. This is a page-turner with a conclusion that is surprising and touching.
For readers whose knowledge of Greek mythology is rusty or vague, Miller has provided a glossary of gods: Olympians and Titans, as well as monsters and mortals who appear in her story.
Not since Mary Renault's landmark "The King Must Die" and "The Bull from the Sea," her re-workings of the legend of Theseus, has an author so brilliantly made Greek mythology relevant for modern readers.