Sea Salt, Magic, and Mortality: A Book Review
The fragrance of earthy herbs, the aftertaste of ripe olives, the spray of seas – all linger after concluding Madeline Miller’s book, Circe. I purchased the best-selling novel at the Strand Bookstore during my last visit to New York. One of the shop’s employees gushed about Miller’s latest tale the instant he saw me inspect its cover. His raving review coupled with my interest in any historical fiction pushed it to the top of my “To Read” stack.
Circe is a follow-up to Miller’s novel The Song of Achilles. I confess that I have not read the book – yet. That said, you do not need to read the first book to become absorbed in Miller’s world of Greek mythology. Prominent figures of Greek mythology and epic poems are weaved effortlessly into the turbulent life of the immortal nymph Circe: the black-sheep daughter of the mighty sun god and titan, Helios.
While the story played out across the pages, I found myself scrolling through my mind’s Rolodex of artworks and archeological treasures. Below you will discover a few of the art historical works that added to my sense of character and setting. I hope this artful review adds to your own experience reading Circe or inspires you to read the Greek nymph’s journey through the ages. As an FYI, there are a few plot spoilers but nothing too revealing. I would not spoil the book for potential readers.
What is any book without its hero? Circe is a nymph and a bit of an outcast, not a great goddess akin to the likes of Athena or Aphrodite. The heroine’s struggle to find her place among divine relatives and dark palaces is precisely what makes her all the more relatable. I felt utterly in-sync with the protagonist from the beginning: I shared her tears, her rage, her passion, and her loneliness with every turn of the page. Later, when she moves to her own island, we see Circe embrace her natural gift to create magic using flora and fauna.
“I did not bring a torch. My eyes shone in the dark better than any owl’s. I walked through the shadowed trees, through the quiet orchards, the groves and braes, across the sands, and up the cliffs. The birds were still, and the beasts. All the sounds were the air among the leaves and my own breath.”–Madeline Miller.
The author’s website includes a photo essay that lists several artists’ representations of Circe throughout art history. Of all the artworks listed, the work that rang truest for me was Bertram Mackennal’s bronze sculpture: Circe from 1893. Her straight posture, poised hands, and concentrated stare convey the character’s purpose and authority; both contrast with her nudity and sense of loneliness. The lines of her symmetric face are godly, while her natural state evokes humanity. In one pose, Mackennal embodies both her magical power and vulnerability. This juxtaposition of Circe’s heavenly status and her affinity/attraction to humans is emphasized throughout the novel, the conflict that Miller’s readers soon come to understand and admire.
FYI: Circe is pronounced [sur-see] not [sur-kay]. I have come across several people who tried to correct me.
Palace of Knossos
Despite her hardships, Circe is portrayed as a character who cannot but help others. Towards the middle of the book, she is requested to help her estranged sister give birth to the infamous Minotaur – an endeavor that takes her to the island of King Minos, also known as Crete. Words cannot describe my excitement upon reading this plot development. The Palace of Knossos was one of the first architectural sites that made me fall in love with art history. If I had to be transported back in time to an ancient civilization, I would say, “Take me to Crete, I want to be a Minoan.”
“The palace was like a hive indeed, each hall leading to an ornate chamber and each chamber to another hall. Windows were cut in the walls to let in thick squares of golden sun. Intricate murals unrolled themselves on every side: dolphins and laughing women, boys getting flowers, and deep-chested bulls tossing their horns.” –Madeline Miller.
The Minoans are an ancient people that remained on the island of Crete for almost 2000 years. Although this particular palace is controversial due to its unorthodox reconstruction, the frescoes have revealed a society that revered woman and gave them positions of authority. We often think of early civilizations as ancient history, but sometimes looking at the past can reveal progressive ways of life: societies wherein women and men may have been treated equally. Miller doesn’t speak explicitly about gender roles at the Palace of Knossos but hints at it through the female-dominated matrimony between Circe’s celestial sister’s and her royal but mortal husband.
The pivotal shift in the book begins with the arrival of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca and hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. During a fireside conversation with Circe, Hermes, the messenger god, foreshadows the lasting impact that Odysseus will have on her life. The Greek hero lands on Circe’s island in search of food and shelter, but more importantly, the nymph’s mercy. By this point in the novel, Circe had already suffered abuse at the hands of brute sailors and, as an act of revenge, had begun to transform all the men seeking her asylum into pigs. Odysseus appeals to Circe’s good nature to avoid this sanguine fate and convinces her to trust him. Mutual good faith evolves, and so does their relationship as lovers. (Although the association between Circe and Odysseus happens on an Island with a nymph who happens to have an intricate loom, Circe is not to be confused for Calypso, who also lives on an island, happens to have an intricate loom, and falls in love with Odysseus.) Even after the hero leaves Circe’s island, the lasting effect of his year-long visit drives the rest of the plot.
“It was not just his words, though they were clever enough. It was everything together: his face, his gestures, the sliding tones of his voice. I would say it was like a spell he cast, but there was no spell I knew that could equal it. The gift was his alone.”–Madeline Miller.
Odysseus (or in Latin, Ulysses) is one of the most commonly portrayed mythological characters in Western literature; however, this is the first time I have seen Odysseus depicted in such a human way. He is often characterized as a righteous and all-powerful king. But in Circe, Miller paints a complicated man hardened by war and leadership. There are many art historical representations of Odysseus, but the artwork that came to mind was the Head of Odysseus. This work is part of a group of sculptures imitating Homer’s account of Odysseus blinding Polyphemus. The natural yet stylized portrait of Odysseus combines a handsome face with a strong brow, deep-set eyes, and a wild beard. This fragmented portrayal of Odysseus resonates with Miller’s more humane interpretation of his character.
There is no single villain in this novel. If there is a villain, it’s not a person but rather a sentiment or state. Circe’s antagonist is her solitude. It is the only constant dread from beginning to end, and a great deal of the plot is driven by her desperate attempts to escape it. If we had to point at a figurative villain: the character of Athena, goddess of wisdom, is the only threatening figure that crops up and recedes continually in the latter part of the novel. Circe describes Odysseus as Athena’s favorite. The fates of Circe and Odysseus are further entwined with an ill-boding prophecy that leads Athena to dangerous desperation. Like many of the gods in Circe, Athena is portrayed as both stunningly beautiful and cold-hearted.
“She struck the room, tall and straight and sudden-white, a talon of lightning in the midnight sky. Her horse-hair helmet brushed the ceiling. Her mirror armor set off sparks. The spear in her hand was long and thin, its keen edge limned in the firelight.” –Madeline Miller.
Representations of Athena are prolific and varied. She appears on countless coins, sculptures, and ceramics. In the red-figure oil vase below, the artist carved and painted the goddess in a full front view with her head in profile; she appears to be contemplating whether or not to take up her horse-haired helmet and spear. The painter left a Greek inscription on the oil vase that reads “kale,” meaning “beautiful.”
Through the character Circe, we are given a coming-of-age tale that demonstrates the power of perseverance – even for those that seem powerless. Miller manages to discuss relevant issues such as sexual abuse, isolation, and the aftereffects of war without compromising the reality of her mythological world. The author’s knowledge of classics is evident in every chapter. Miller’s prose is eloquent and detailed, but she still allows enough room for the reader to use their imagination. The artworks and architectural sites mentioned in this brief review are a few mental slides that crept back into my mind as to fill in the details of my own reading adventure. I hope the art historical references mentioned here add to your own observations of Circe or entice you into reading this incredible book. The book may be a historical fiction novel, but it touches upon both personal and topical issues that anyone can relate to.