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Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

CirceWhen I was reading Circe by Madeline Miller this summer, I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to tell everyone I saw, “I’m reading this amazing book, you should read it, too!”

Of course, I didn’t tell every random stranger I saw about it. But my friends, and some of my family members, and definitely people at the library (most of my most favorite librarians were also reading it, too), and as I talked about this book, I started to see a commonality.

“It’s the story of Circe,” I’d say. “Remember, from The Odyssey? She’s the witch who turns men into pigs, except Odysseus comes prepared, and they fall in love instead?”

So many of my friends and family and favorite people looked back at me with blankness, or a sort of embarrassment. “I’ve never read The Odyssey,” they’d say, and this is the commonality: it seems that apart from English majors and librarians, no one reads Homer anymore.

It made me stop and think: why do I love those old stories? Especially once I stop to think about them critically, with the feminist lens that usually focuses my thought. Women are treated horribly in these stories; they are raped, offered as sacrifices, slept with and then left behind (Dido in The Aenid, burning on her pyre, is an image I think of often), turned into slaves; their wisdom is ignored (Cassandra), they are valued only for their beauty (Helen) or their potential for marriage (Lavinia). They are stories of men doing brutal things, of heartless, thoughtless Gods and Goddesses making a mess of humanity.

And yet—I return to them.

And I love when authors return to them, remake them into something new even as they hold on to their antiquity. 

The witch Circe plays a part in The Odyssey: she teaches Odysseus how to get through Scylla and Charybdis. But her role in the tales of the Greeks is much larger than that, and Madeline Miller tells not just about her encounters with the Homeric hero, but her whole life. I had not noticed how much of the Greek hero tales include Circe, in fact, until I read her story all at once, but she is everywhere.

I loved this book not only because I love those old Greek hero tales by Homer and Virgil, but because I love all of the Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses, the smaller immortals. I always have. But I also loved it because it makes the Homeric tale accessible.

In fact, if you (like many of my friends) haven’t ever read The Odyssey, it doesn’t matter, because Circe is larger than just that connection It is a book, ultimately, about what happens when a woman has power. How a woman can use what a man casually punishes her with in order to gain power, and how understanding one’s identity also gives power. How anyone with power uses it well, and uses it poorly. It is about how society uses women unfairly whether they have power or not, how men can see us as dispensable, disposable. Invisible, in a sense. But also how love—when someone truly sees someone else—can transform. The difference between solitude and loneliness. The satisfaction of finding one’s truest craft and then pursuing it with relentless determination. The difficulty of being a mother, of loving siblings, of coming to peace with parents’ failure to love us as we needed to be loved but were not.

My copy—I bought the British edition because I love both the dust jacket and the cover underneath it, which is embossed with a bronze inlay—is full of underlining, almost as much as my copy of Lavinia (which this reminded me of). One of my favorite quotes is this one:

Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away. True in Circe’s time. Also true in ours, although we are no longer nymphs, but women. (Couldn’t we say this about Cristine Blasey-Ford? And Anita Hill? And all other women not in the news who men have feasted on in this month, this year, this millennia?)

But the thing that impacted me most deeply on reading Circe was how she made her own life, despite what the Gods planned for her. Despite what the Gods planned. This resonated with me in my current life, as I try to decipher what is true, what is really true as opposed to what is a man telling me is true about the nature of God. I find myself no longer willing—no longer able—to listen to the voices of men telling me how to live my life, what is truth, what is goodness, what is right. As Circe also thinks, “There was something in me that was sick of fear and awe, of gazing at the heavens and wondering what someone would allow me.” I want to gaze on God—whatever he/she is—not with fear, or with shame at my mistakes, or with confusion at seemingly-inane rules. I want to feel that God allows me to live the life she/he gave me, with the desires and beliefs that life has brought me being a well of inspiration rather than doubt, fear, regret, wrongness.

Circe finds that. I think Odysseus finds it, too, and many of the other characters in all of the Greek tales. Maybe it is what all the old stories are about—figuring out who you are, who you are in relation to deity but also within your life itself, the world you live in. Or maybe it just what all of the best stories are about, and that we find it in tales so ancient reminds us, this is human nature, whether you are an immortal-ish nymph or a 40-something human woman.


Ruth Covington

I love this review, Amy! You express so well many of my same struggles with regard to authority, relationship to the divine, and finding and pursuing your personal identity at the cost of others' expectations and plans. Mind if I link to this on the library blog when I post the favorites of 2018? (Spoiler alert: Circe is on there!)

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