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Circe

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Circe

By Madeline Miller (2018)

"The sun beat upon the horizon. It beat everywhere, upon my back and arms and face. I wore no shawl. I would not burn. I never did." - from Circe

Overview

“Think a novel based on Greek mythology isn’t for you? Just wait” (People). Madeline Miller’s bestselling, critically acclaimed second novel Circe—about the goddess Circe—has been called “spellbinding” (O Magazine), “vivid, transporting” (Entertainment Weekly), “an epic page turner” (Christian Science Monitor), and “a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting” (Guardian). Following her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, Miller takes on the world of gods, monsters, mortals, and nymphs in this “bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right” (New York Times). Miller “paints an uncompromising portrait of a superheroine who learns to wield divine power while coming to understand what it means to be mortal” (Publishers Weekly, Starred Review). The myths have been retold many times “and yet in Miller’s lush reimagining, the story feels harrowing and unexpected. The…fate that awaits Circe is at once divine and mortal, impossibly strange and yet entirely human” (Washington Post).

Introduction to the Book

“Human nature and its attendant folly, passion, pride and generosity has not changed in the past three thousand years, and is always relevant.” – from madelinemiller.com

Madeline Miller’s novel Circe (pronounced SUR-see) is a story about a Greek mythological goddess. She is a minor character in many old texts, most notably the Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem written at the end of the 8th century BCE, and the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s epic poem completed in the year 8 CE. But whereas Homer, Ovid, and other authors depict Circe as weak or evil and lacking nuance, Miller reimagines her as a complex, “passionately empathetic and strong-willed woman” determined to find her own path and evolve (Girls’ Night In). She “is always presented [in old texts] through the perspective of Odysseus and the male heroic tradition,” Miller told Bustle. “We get no sense of Circe’s internal life, motivations, or history. She’s just another adventure for the hero to have, a sexy witch who makes Odysseus look good. I wanted to strip that objectification away, and allow her the same three-dimensionality, agency, and center stage that Odysseus has.”

To best portray her that way, Miller has Circe tell her story in her own voice, which Homer describes as sounding human. Miller was drawn in by the mystery of that. “To me that suggested that she was a person caught between two worlds, the divine and the mortal, belonging fully to neither” (thelibrary.org). And neither world, as it turns out, offers Circe a solid model for morality: the former is unabashedly, unwaveringly narcissistic and she has too little exposure to the latter. “She starts out really unable to say what she thinks and by the end of the book, she’s able to live life on her terms and say what she thinks and what she feels” (BookRiot).

Circe begins her story with her own birth. She is the daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun and father of many children, and Perse, one of the daughters of the Titan god Oceanus. She is a nymph—“least of the lesser gods” (p. 3)—and as a child is relentlessly ridiculed by her sister, Pasiphae, and brother, Perses. To escape her lonely existence and the cruel gods of her youth, Circe seeks the company of a mortal fisherman, falls in love, and grants him immortality with the help of a magical herb. When another nymph, Scylla, lures him away, a young Circe succumbs to jealousy and uses the herb to punish Scylla and reveal the ugliness within her, but is shocked by the unintended, harsh outcome: Scylla turns into a six-headed sea monster who will smash ships and feed on mortals for the next thousand years. Full of shame, Circe does something her fellow gods would never do: she admits her wrongdoing. “Circe is born into a society that structurally doesn't grant her any power,” Miller told thelibrary.org. “In fact, at every turn she's belittled, disrespected and objectified. So she has a choice: she can live with that, or she can find a way to fight for herself.  She chooses to fight.”

Fearing her use of (what the gods perceive as) witchcraft, Zeus—king of the gods—exiles Circe to the uninhabited island of Aiaia for all of eternity. Alone for the first time, she makes herself at home, weaving, cooking, and collecting, drying, chopping, and experimenting with herbs to perfect her witchcraft. “What the solitude allows is for Circe to be who she is without having her selfhood deformed by the expectation of her father, family, or society. She can finally say: who am I, really? Whom do I want to be? What do I believe in?” (Refinery29).

As the years pass, she is visited by a host of characters, some welcome, some not: the mischievous Hermes, son of Zeus and the god of travelers and trickery, who drops in unannounced with gossip and a desire to stir up controversy; the master craftsman Daedalus, a mortal who comes to take her to Crete and back so she can help her sister give birth to the Minotaur (a being with the body of a male and the head of a bull); her niece, Medea, and Medea’s husband, Jason; and Odysseus, the wily prince of Ithaca, whose men she turns into pigs. She forms a special bond with Odysseus as he spends time on her island, healing after his many years fighting in the Trojan War. Circe “ends up being one of the most helpful people he meets on his journey,” Miller explained. “That healing, wise, benevolent part of her has been largely erased, and I wanted to bring it back” (Bustle).

Circe becomes pregnant with Odysseus’s son. Though motherhood does not come easy to her, she raises her son, Telegonus, into adulthood with intense love, protecting him from Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war arts, who wants him dead to ward off a prophesy. The story continues with more plot twists and turns typical of the Greek myths, involving two more characters that enter Circe’s life: Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and her son, Telemachus. “It was such a pleasure to have Penelope waiting for me in the last stretch of the novel!” says Miller. The relationship between Circe and Penelope “represents the closing of one of the most, to me, poignant threads of the novel, which is Circe’s desire for true and genuine connection” (RoosterGNN).

That human need for connection is at the heart of the Greek myths and why they endure, says Miller. “I think sometimes people are intimidated by [the myths]—they believe that they are only for elite readers. But that’s not the case at all, and never has been. Homer’s poems were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition—they were stories told by grandparents to their grandchildren, they were stories everyone knew. And they have lived because they are such potent tales of human nature. So many thousands of years later, they still hold the mirror up: we still love and grieve, hope and despair, go to war, and yearn for peace. If we look past the chariots and spears, these ancient stories are incredibly modern, and have much to teach us about ourselves” (RoosterGNN).

Madeline-Miller-author-photo.jpg

Madeline Miller

Photo by Nina Subin

Madeline Miller (b. 1978)

“I loved to tell my favorite myths over and over, to everyone I knew: my long-suffering mother, my friends, my little brother. I lived in hope that someone on the street would wonder aloud: ‘Who is Circe, anyway?’ I was ready, like a mythological paramedic, to leap to their aid.” – from an essay in the Telegraph

Madeline Miller grew up within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though she was born in Boston, she moved to Manhattan when she was about a year old and during her early years her mom would take her to the museum at least once a month and let her choose which exhibits to see. She always chose the ones on Egyptian, Roman, and Ancient Greek. “My poor mother: I think she always wanted to go look at the impressionists, but I was very insistent” (Public Books).

Her family moved to Philadelphia when Miller entered high school. There she studied Latin with “an absolutely terrific and inspiring teacher” (Booktopia) who also taught extracurricular Greek. “He saw that I was completely obsessed with these stories and took me aside and said, ‘I can have you reading the Iliad in the original in about a year.’ I said, ‘Sign me up.’ So he did this small group meeting with me and a few other students. We met on early morning Saturdays and before school. For a teenager, that’s a really epic amount of effort, but it was all worth it” (Public Books). She continued her studies at Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in the classics. She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy Department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms.

“I have always loved reading and writing,” she told Booktopia. “I credit my mom with a lot of this. She was a librarian, and spent countless hours reading aloud to me, and supporting my love of books.” Miller remembers one evening when her mother was reading to her at bedtime and had just finished a “particularly exciting moment in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. As she turned out the light, she said: ‘Now don’t go reading the end by yourself with a flashlight.’ I thought: ‘WHAT? You can do that?!’ That was the beginning of years of secret nighttime reading” (Guardian).

Miller also loved independent bookstores as a child. “So many favorites came from browsing their shelves, or following the recommendations of booksellers. And of course, this was in antiquity when there was no Internet. My local independent bookstores were my best  [and](often only) source of passionate recommendations. Now that we have the Internet those recommendations are just as vital, because there is no way for mere mortals to keep up with the tidal wave of new book information” (Parnassusmusing).

For the past 20 years, Miller has taught and tutored Latin, Greek, and the works of William Shakespeare to high school students outside Philadelphia. “I love working with high schoolers on theater because it gives them a safe space to explore different parts of themselves that sometimes get shut down in the hurly-burly of adolescence,” she told Booktopia. While she taught, she wrote and researched and eventually published her first novel, The Song of Achilles, in 2012 (Ecco), which became a bestseller and was translated into more than 25 languages. A modern story about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, two characters from Homer’s enduring masterwork, The Iliad, it was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction making Miller the fourth debut novelist to win the prize. Her second novel, Circe (Little, Brown, 2018), also became a bestseller and winner of numerous awards, including an Alex Award from the American Library Association given to adult books of special interest to teen readers.

Neither novel came easy. The Song of Achilles took Miller ten years to complete; Circe took her six years. She rewrote sections many times, discarded full drafts, and took time to do research in Greece, Turkey, and Italy. “I spent a lot of time reading my primary sources in their original Greek and Latin,” she told thelibrary.org. “I spent a lot of time reading secondary scholarship on them as well.  I also did significant research into material culture—ancient looms for instance, or the type of jewelry someone might wear on Crete in the Bronze Age.” She also struggled with the voice of the narrators. “I’m trying to hear them in my head as if they are telling me their story. It’s a totally messy, weird, creative, instinctive process but the way they speak, the voice, is really key for me” (BookRiot).

As a parent of two children, Miller writes when she can and often at night, alone in a dark room. When she writes during the day, she likes to take breaks to exercise. “Any time I need to work on a scene or fix some dialogue, going for a walk or going to the gym always helps. There’s something about the motion of my body that puts my mind in motion” (BookRiot).

Asked about her enduring interest in the Greek myths, Miller might begin by saying they’re simply great stories. They are “exciting, passionate, tragic, terrifying. They're filled with larger-than-life heroes, monsters, catastrophe, and derring-do” (thelibrary.org). But she’ll also tell you they are our stories, filled with grief, hope, love, and despair, which is why they’ve been rewritten and retold through the ages. “Homer is the oldest version of these stories that we have, but Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides revisited them, as did Plato, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, James Joyce, Margaret Atwood, Derek Walcott, and thousands upon thousands more…. All of those authors offered new perspectives, adding to the story over the years. It's an honor to be part of that tradition, and to do my part to help keep these stories alive” (thelibrary.org).

October 2019

  1. Circe begins her story with a description of the immortal world into which she is born, detailing the abusive power of the Greek gods. Do you think the gods are abusive because they are powerful and/or immortal? What does Circe come to learn about power?
  2. As a child, Circe witnesses the public torture of her uncle Prometheus, who eased the suffering of humans by bringing them the gift of fire. In what ways does Circe’s encounter with her uncle change her?
  3. Circe has a strong bond with her baby brother, Aeëtes. Why do their paths diverge so drastically when he gets older? Why do you think he makes the choices that he does?
  4. Circe’s sister Pasiphaë is first presented to readers as wholly unsympathetic. After their visit in Crete, however, Circe—while detesting her sister’s behavior—comes to understand and ultimately sympathize with her sister’s yearning for independence and struggle to control her own destiny. Could either of them have achieved these goals another way? What constraints were they up against? Do you think certain groups of people face the same constraints today?
  5. Miller has said that in writing her novel, she was interested in exploring the different ways women react to trauma and childhood abuse. How would you describe the varied ways Circe, Pasiphaë, and Medea deal with trauma? In what ways has the violence in their lives affected their decisions?
  6. Circe and Medea are known as two of the most powerful witches of ancient literature. In what ways are they similar and/or dissimilar to other witches you’ve encountered in myths and fairytales? In what ways are they similar and/or dissimilar to each other?
  7.  There are numerous references to crafts in the novel, including weaving, carpentry metal-working, even witchcraft. Why does Circe seek to master these crafts? How important are they to her identity? To her survival?
  8. Circe says that when she first meets Odysseus he seems familiar to her. Why do you think she says that? Whom, if anyone, does he remind her of? Why do you think she helps him?
  9. Is Circe a good parent? What are her strengths and weaknesses as a single mother to her son, Telegonus?
  10. Circe wonders if parents can ever see their children clearly. She notes that so often when looking at our children “we see only the mirror of our own faults.” What parts of herself does she see when she looks at Telegonus? Do you think your parents or caretakers see (or saw) you clearly? If you’re a parent, what parts of yourself do you see in your child/children? Do you think you can see them clearly?
  11. Circe is a natural caretaker, but sometimes her impulse to nurture others comes under threat of being abused or exploited. How does Circe try to protect herself while giving of herself at the same time? Does she succeed? Can you think of instances in your own life when that balance of nurturing and self-protection has been threatened?
  12. Did you relate in any way to Circe’s sense of loneliness and/or longing for a home or “nostos” (an Ancient Greek word for “homecoming,” a central theme in Homer’s Odyssey)? If so, what are some of the things you’ve done (or do) to cope? Does Circe ever find her “home”?
  13. Circe is interested in Penelope from the moment she hears about her from Odysseus. What draws her to Penelope? In what ways do her feelings toward Penelope shift once they meet in person?
  14. Circe says to Telemachus, “Do not try to take my regret from me.” What does she mean by this? What does Circe regret? Would you have someone take away your regret if you could?
  15. Circe’s gift is her ability to transform. How does she transform from the beginning of the novel to the end? Why do you think she ultimately chooses the path she takes at the end? If you were Circe, would you have chosen that path?
  16. Before you began the novel, were you familiar with any of the figures who appear in the story, e.g., from ancient texts, modern retellings, and/or pop culture? If so, where did you learn of the characters and what were they like? Were their portrayals in this novel different and/or surprising to you?
  17. I think it’s important when reading a classic work to ask: whose stories are being told, and whose stories have been left out or suppressed?” says Miller. She references Geraldine Brooks’s March, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly as good examples of novels that recast their source texts “in wonderful, original ways, giving voice to characters who have been largely silent” (Bustle). Is there a character whose story you feel has been suppressed? Why? What might you imagine that character’s story to be?

Discussion questions adapted from source material provided by Madeline Miller.

Audio

Madeline Miller

Novelist and NEA Big Read author

In Circe --Madeline Miller’s second novel and our newest NEA Big Read title—the goddess/witch moves from the sidelines of The Odyssey to the center stage of her own story. Miller knows and loves the classics and Circe is an imaginative response to questions Miller had about the exiled goddess. She doesn’t change the story so much as expand it and give us Circe's back story. For example, Circe still turns men into pigs, as she does in Homer’s telling, but in Miller’s book she gives us the context behind this piece of magic. Miller and I talk about gods and mortals, the fine distinctions between witches and goddesses, what shifts when you put a woman’s story in an epic frame, the timelessness and timeliness of these myths, and why every woman should have a lion. She is engaging, fun and funny—in other words, she’s a great addition to the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program and a super podcast guest.

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