My favourite film of all-time is, and has been since I first watched it as a child, Jason and the Argonauts. It probably was the catalyst for my love of Greek mythology. So it was with great anticipation that I read Circe, the second book written by Madeline Miller about the Ancient Greek gods.
Circe is a character who played a bit part in all the stories of Jason, Zeus, Apollo, Hermes and Odysseus but was never considered important enough to have her own story. A thousand years later and she finally gets it. This book covers The Odyssey from Circe's perspective but there is much, much more to this tale.
The beginning seems a little odd in that the gods dismiss a child, Circe, because she is not godly enough, pretty enough or male, including her own mother. All the women are frivolous and their strength is based on the shallow principle of perceived beauty. Oh dear. But I carried on. As a pariah she seeks the company of mortals and falls in love with a fisherman. A sympathetic aunt gives him god-like status so that he does not age like mortals do. But, isn't it always the way, in his elevated position he finds another more attractive goddess and poor old Circe is rejected once again.
And here is where the story really takes hold. Circe uses the power of plants to make spells and is accused of being a witch. The gods, even the mighty Zeus, are afraid of her powers. She is banished to an uninhabited island where she lives alone, befriending the animals and getting by as best she can. Despite being a goddess, she is also a woman and is subject to the horrors single women often are when ship-loads of men stop by her island. Fortunately she develops spells to protect herself and those creatures living on her island.
Of the more welcome visitors are Hermes, the messenger god full of the god gossip, Jason with his ship Argos with the golden fleece on board, the craftsman Daedalus and finally Odysseus on his final journey back home following the ten-year war where Achilles and Hector died.
As gods live for such a long time I wondered how the events at the beginning of the story would relate to Odysseus (in particular) and the ending. I thought that this may have been a biopic without any other purpose. But no, themes of homecoming and acceptance tied all of the tales together even though there is such a huge time span.
The book is well written and manages to use modern language to retell ancient stories. The imagery is woven in such a way as to create the sense of classic and respected mythology along with accessibility. I like how the more famous stories seamlessly become part of this one, not just the Odyssey, but without these this would have been a very short story. Above all, Circe is undeniably human as well as being a god, with positive features and not the caricature bad witch. Always I was rooting for Circe, the lonely, sympathetic and courageous woman.
The hope is that more people are drawn in to discovering Greek mythology for themselves. I see a few more books like this are on the way. Bring it on!
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