A Modern Classic?
Greek Mythology wrapped in modern language and agenda anyone? Some are calling this bestseller a modern classic. I’ve always been enthralled by mythology so I eagerly read Circe by Madeline Miller. Miller retells the story of the minor goddess Circe, but so much more. In these pages you learn about Scylla, Odysseus, Helios’ family life, and what happened to Penelope after the Odyssey. A lot of readers I respect loved this retelling. And I see why: it’s reasonably well written and has a unique focus on the Titans as opposed to the usual Olympians. But I have to confess: in the end I disliked this book.
We all know The Iliad and The Odyssey. There’s another epic, NOT by Homer, that purports to continue the story of Odysseus. The origins of this epic, called the Telegonia (Telegony) are controversial. The best guess seems to be that it was written at least 2 centuries after The Odyssey. The text of the Telegony is lost, but a synopsis remains. And I, among others, consider it to sound like mediocre fan fiction based on The Odyssey.
Have you ever tried a sequel to a classic, written after the authors’ death? Aren’t they always and universally disappointing? That’s how I imagine the Greeks must have viewed the Telegony: a disappointing sequel centuries after the death of Homer.
Unfortunately, Miller draws heavily on the plot of the Telegony to inform the storyline of Circe. Why does this matter? Well, did you like Telemachus and admire Penelope in The Odyssey? You may not after Circe. Adding onto the plot in the Telegony that Odysseus had an illegitimate son by the nymph Circe, Miller imagines the fallout. Penelope ends up a manipulative witch. Telemachus falls in love with his father’s mistress who gave birth to his half brother already. Weird, right?
Catholic opinions diverge dramatically when it comes to comfort level with reading books about “good” witches and wizards. I believe you have to take books on a case by case basis. Listen to what each individual author is trying to tell or show. In Circe, Circe and her 3 siblings discover a predilection for witchcraft, which in this book means using herbs and spells to do things like raise the dead, make transformations, and so forth.
Early in the book, Circe explains her love of witchcraft as a love of power. She says learning witchcraft was hard work, but she desired the power it gave her. “I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.” Circe’s siblings, and even Circe herself, often use their witchcraft for evil ends. But I consider Circe to take an ambiguous stance on witchcraft. Miller takes the position that there’s nothing inherently good or evil about spells and potions; the will, end, and intentions of the witch determine the morality of the action. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the Biblically-derived zero tolerance for witchcraft policy that we must abide to as Christians.
Intentional Feminist Agenda
At the end of my copy of Circe, there’s an interview with Madeline Miller in which she states that she intentionally wrote the book to push a feminist agenda. Ouch. We can all grant that the ancient world often undervalued and marginalized women. But twisting ancient myths to suit your 21st century agenda is not going to win my approval, ever.
Miller thinks that as a culture we distrust “powerful women.” In Circe, she seeks to destigmatize them. I’ll admit I didn’t think this book actually helped that case. The female goddesses are terrible. Penelope is portrayed as incredibly manipulative. Circe herself misuses her power fairly often, though she later tries to fix some of the damage she does. There’s that typical root misunderstanding of what true feminism means.
Of gods and men
A big theme over the course of the book is the difference between the gods and mankind. The pagan gods are cruel, selfish, merciless, and proud. Most of the humans in the book don’t seem particularly virtuous either: the lustful sailors, manipulate Odysseus, unfaithful Glaucos, and so on. But Circe envies them for their ability to change and die. In the last few lines of the story, she says “I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.” She then chooses to become a mortal.
On the one hand, this was a superbly plotted ending if you grant her point. Throughout the book, Circe has gradually changed, moving towards unselfishness and forgiveness. She’s changed so much she is no longer a god, but a mortal who can die.
But on the other hand, I didn’t agree with the equation she writes for us: divinity = unchanging = unmerciful/unloving/bad. It doesn’t follow or flow, at least to my Catholic mind. I have no idea if Miller is pushing an atheist agenda in addition to a feminist one, or simply trying to justify her ending.
Better Greek Mythology
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What do I like better if you do want to familiarize yourself with Greek Mythology? For adults who don’t mind a little British humor, Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes are superbly done. If you have teens, try Padraic Colum’s retellings: The Children’s Homer and The Golden Fleece. For kids, I like D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys.