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Thursday, May 03, 2018

Just Finished Reading... Circe by Madeleine Miller. Bloomsbury 2018

I’ve always loved Greek mythology. I’d read Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths before I was out of primary school, notes on the sacred king and all. I probably didn’t quite get the notion at the time, and puzzled my schoolmates telling them about the Triple Goddess, but never mind. I was about eleven when I first read Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, which explains the concept better through fiction.

Oddly, I didn’t discover The Odyssey till I was in about Year 8, when I found a copy in the bookshop where I went shopping for school textbooks. It was the old Penguin edition, the E.V Rieu prose translation(I see his son has updated the translation). And that was where I read about Circe, the sorceress who turned men into pigs and wild animals. Once Odysseus had avoided turning through use of a certain herb, and slept with her, he managed to persuade her to turn his men back. Then she gave him advice about how to get through the dangers that lay ahead. She wasn’t a villain, she was a goddess who could use her powers on men who showed her disrespect. But still, we saw her through the hero’s eyes.

This novel shows Odysseus and the other characters of myth through her eyes. And it works. I did sort of see the ending coming, but no matter. It was a fascinating journey to get there.

This is not a Mary Renault-style historical novel. Ordinary humans barely appear. It’s straight fantasy.

It has a literary flavour, if that’s your thing. Because the main character is a woman and spends at least half the novel on her island, with only her animals for company, it doesn’t have any epic battles or major adventures. The Trojan War happens offstage. Even the war of gods and Titans happened long before the novel begins.

Circe is born to the nymph Perse and the sun god Helios, living in his palace along with her parents, her bullying siblings Pasiphae(yes, that Pasiphae, future mother of the Minotaur)and Perses, who make her life miserable, her younger brother Aeetes(future father of Medea), her grandparents Oceanus and Tethys and about a thousand bickering, gossiping nymphs and river gods. She turns a mortal lover, Glaucus, into a sea god, only to find he is a huge disappointment once he is immortal.

Gods and nymphs, they’re all dreadful people. When Circe, probably the only decent one of the lot, is finally exiled to the isle of Aiaia, it’s almost a relief. Finally she can be herself and experiment with her witchcraft gifts. Animals come to her. She already has wild pigs when she turns her first ship’s crew - and when she does, you can’t blame her. They really have it coming!

This Circe likes her men intelligent. She has an affair with Hermes, the trickster god, but the only man she ever really cares about is Odysseus. And Odysseus will keep talking about his wonderful wife Penelope(not a spoiler, it’s all part of the myth.)

I like that this author has stuck to the myths. All she has done is interpret the characters of Greek myth. Only one thing that I could see was changed and it was near the end. I’d read a scene and say, “Hang on, was that in the myth?” and check it out to find that yes, it was.

I finished it over a couple of days, and found it very readable. Highly recommended! 

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