Circe by Madeline Miller


Circe is best-known as the witch in the Odyssey, where she turns men into pigs. I’d have gone for something smaller, cuter and less messy, myself, but each to their own. She’s also aunt to both Medea and the Minotaur. What she isn’t is a household name in the way that so many of the figures from ancient Greek myths and epics are, but she’s attracted a certain amount of attention over the years, usually being vilified for being a female who held power and used it against males.

This is being billed as a “#MeToo” re-telling of her story. I don’t know that it’s that, as such, but it’s a very readable story of a woman’s life. It must be very difficult to weave together a coherent narrative from bits of lots of different stories, especially with the added complication of having gods, demi-gods and mortals all alongside each other, but it does work very well. I rather like this recent resurgence of interest in the stories of Ancient Greece (I’m the idiot who climbed up to the citadel of Mycenae and went wandering round the ruins of ancient Sparta when it was well over 100 degrees in the shade). They’ve been around for so long, and they’ve had such a profound influence in Western culture – so many words in English come from them – that it’d be a great shame if they were ever to be lost.

Circe is a nymph and a sorceress, the daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse, but, despite her powers, her personality’s very human in this book, which starts off with her as a young girl in whom no-one takes much interest because she’s the plain one of the family, then as a rebel who tries to help her uncle Prometheus when he’s chained to a rock and turns her love rival Scylla into a monster, and then as a woman who’s exiled to the island of Aiaia on her own, works hard there with her herbs and spells, and becomes embroiled in some very well-known stories. Hermes turns up quite often, as her on-off lover. She’s called to Crete to help deliver the Minotaur and sort out what’s to be done with him, and gets involved with Daedalus whilst she’s there. And, of course, there’s the visit of Odysseus. This is the #MeToo bit: the way it’s presented here is that Circe, after a previous sexual assault by a visiting sailor, turns Odysseus’s men into swine because she’s frightened of what they might do to her if they remain in human form.  It’s self-protection.

There are all sorts of different stories about Circe and Odysseus’s children, but, in this book, they just have the one – Telegonus, who then accidentally kills his father. Odysseus’s wife Penelope and their son Telemachus then turn up, and Circe takes up with Telemachus, whilst Telegonus goes off to found Tusculum.  I love seeing Circe and Penelope team up! This is very much a book in which women are the main players – despite the fact that Circe is exiled by her father.  Odysseus is presented as having been completely overrated, Jason as being rather a prat, and most of the male gods as being silly and spiteful.

It’s not as anti-male as that sounds, honestly!  And I don’t know that it’s meant as a feminist book generally.  But it is very irritating how there’s always this vilification of women who hold power.  Part of it’s the idea of sexual power, which Circe is seen as holding because of her involvement with Odysseus. Anne Boleyn, Wallis Simpson, and even to some extent Elizabeth Woodville are all reviled as women who used their sexual power to inveigle men into unsuitable marriages – as if the men, the kings, the most powerful people in the land, had nothing to do with it!

Part of it’s just a fear of hatred of female power in general, and the idea that that’s somehow linked to malign powers.  Anne and Elizabeth were both accused by their enemies of being witches.  Even now, people will use the term “witch” to describe a female politician whom they don’t like. OK, presumably they’re not alleging that the women have supernatural powers, but the fact that “witch” is a term of abuse whereas “wizard” and “sorcerer” are great compliments says a lot.

Despite being a witch, Circe is, as I’ve said, very human in this book – someone with faults and feelings, and I got quite attached to her.  Whilst I generally prefer “real” history, I’ve been interested in Greek and Roman myths since reading a children’s book of them when I was about 6 – Google suggests that it was probably Enid Blyton’s “Tales of Long Ago”.  I have to confess that I’ve never read the Iliad or the Odyssey, despite having had copies of them for years.  I have read the whole of the Aeneid, but that was when I was a teenager and had more time!  But they are fascinating, and it’s great that there’s still this interest in them, and that people like Madeline Miller, Pat Barker, Margaret Atwood and Margaret George (oh, and Brad Pitt) are keeping that going.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although it’s not my usual sort of thing, and would highly recommend it.



I’m joining in with a Word Press Book Challenge, suggested in the interests of festive inclusivity :-).  The idea is to mention one book for each of the eight nights of the festival of Chanukah, which starts tonight. So I have amused myself by listing eight books, some of which are old favourites and some of which were new reads this year, with (gloriously tenuous – I have an over-vivid imagination) links to the Chanukah story.  I’ve got football, the Chalet School, Coronation Street, Little Women, Renaissance Italy and the Napoleonic Wars in here, amongst other things.  I know.  I’m weird.  Also, if you Google “Chanukah”, it comes up with a really cute cartoon – give it a go!

Thanks to  The Chocolate Lady   for suggesting this.  Sorry that I’m not very good at finding books to fit categories suggested elsewhere, but these are my eight books … in no particular order.

The Lights of Manchester by Tony Warren.  Lights – Chanukah, Festival of Lights.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, and that’s important, and wonderful up to a point, but it gets rather silly when, for example, you get people claiming that the new CATS film is racist because the colour of the fur on one of the costumes doesn’t match the actress’s skin tone … without stopping to find out that he character concerned, Victoria, is also known as “The White Cat”, so her fur has to be white.  It’s nothing to do with racism!  I do wish everyone would try a bit harder to look for the good in society, instead of assuming the worst.  Most people are actually rather nice.  Anyway, in this lovely book from the 1990s, written by the late creator of Coronation Street, the main character is white and Protestant, but her soul mate and eventual husband Barney is Jewish, her best friend Mickey is gay, her friends Judy, Monica and Delia are all Catholic, and Delia’s husband Carlton is black.  Tony Warren wasn’t trying to make a point, or to prove anything, or to accuse anyone of anything, like some people seem to do incessantly.  He was just writing about life, and people, and Manchester life and people in particular. I first read this book just before the festive season in 1992.  It’s an all-time favourite.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton.  The baddies in the Chanukah story are Syrian.  Except that they’re actually Greek.  Like Cleopatra and the rest of the Ptolemy brigade were Egyptian, but actually Greek.  Anyway, the baddies are the rulers of  “Coele-Syria”, an area now forming parts of Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and are generally referred to as “Syrians”.  This book, also set in Manchester, came out this year, and is about Syrian refugees.  It’s an important subject, and I love the way it uses a traditional GO-type format to tell a modern-day story.

Circe by Madeline Miller.  As I said, the Syrian baddies are actually Greek!   This book’s about Greek gods rather than real Greeks, but I’m including it because it’s the last book I read.   I believe there’s a mini-series coming, so fingers crossed that it’s shown somewhere I can see it!

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  The Chanukah story isn’t actually in the Jewish or Protestant versions of the Old Testament, although it’s in the Catholic, Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox versions … I always thought it just wasn’t in, but apparently it depends which version you’ve got.  How very confusing!   Anyway, I was going to say that, although it isn’t actually in the Bible, but make that “although it isn’t actually in all versions of the Bible”, it’s still a religious story, and they tend to feature blokes as heroes, so it’s great to have a book which focuses on some of the female characters in the Bible … and this one’s become hugely popular.

Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler. This is primarily set in the very lovely city of Porto. No, it isn’t about football: it’s about the Napoleonic Wars. It’s also about crypto-Jews. There’ve been a lot of times during which, for one reason or another – being Jews or Muslims in the Spanish or Portuguese Empires, being “heretics”, belonging to a Christian denomination that’s on the opposite side to the authorities during/after the Reformation, belonging to any religion in a strict communist regime – people have been able to practice their religion only in secret. This was also the case in the Chanukah story, in which the Syrians-who-were-actually-Greeks were busy Hellenising everything. According to a great historical tradition dating back two millennia (ahem, which was possibly invented in the 19th century, rather like a lot of those wondrous “age-old” Christmas traditions, but never mind), Jews meeting in secret to study religious texts would, if caught by the Greek-Syrian authorities, pretend to be playing a game with spinning tops.  No spinning tops in this book, sadly, but Richard Zimler’s books are always interesting.

The spinning tops are actually historically accurate, i.e. relating to that period of history, even if their link to the story may possibly be a bit tenuous.  And, if you do look at the Google cartoon, you’ll see them in there.

The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover. This one is about football! And the author’s from Manchester, and a lifelong United fan. The link here is that the Maccabees, the heroes of the Chanukah story, whilst they were possibly more interested in playing with spinning tops than in playing football, have ended up with a load of sporting clubs named after them, the most famous being Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, who are often involved in Champions League or Europa League action. This book’s a biography of a Holocaust survivor who went on to manage Benfica to European Cup glory.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park. I was trying to think of a book which involved olive oil, to go with the Chanukah oil story, but the best I could think of was a book set somewhere where I’ve seen lots of olive groves, so either Greece or Italy. This one’s set in Renaissance Italy, where the heroine, Grazia dei Rossi (who is Jewish, although I don’t think she ever mentions Chanukah!) works as a secretary for Isabella d’Este, daughter of the ruler of Ferrara and wife of the ruler of Mantua. Both of those areas have lots of olive groves!

Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. A sub-plot in the Chanukah story involves a woman called Hannah, who has seven sons. Although, apparently the books about the Maccabees, which are or aren’t in the Bible depending on which version you’ve got, don’t actually mention her name, but she’s usually called Hannah … although in some countries she’s called Miriam. Or Solomonia. Anyway, Hannah and her sons are arrested by the Syrian king. Who is actually Greek. Pass the doughnuts, someone: I’m confusing myself here.  Anyway, I thought it’d be easy to come up with a book about someone called Hannah, but it wasn’t. However, we do have Hannah, the March family’s faithful old retainer in Little Women – and, seeing as there’s yet another new film version of Little Women due out later this month, I thought that that was quite apt. And I do like to have American Civil War books on my lists.

And … because there are actually nine candles, because one is needed to light the other eight, and because it seems a bit weird not to have a Chalet School book on the list, book number nine is Peggy of the Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. When Peggy Bettany returns to her friends after her surprise appointment as the new Head Girl, Judy Rose teases her by chanting “See the Conqu’ring Heroine Comes” … referring to “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” which (although it’s actually a veiled reference to the Battle of Culloden!) is about Judah the Maccabee, the leader of the Maccabees.  Incidentally, someone has put up a giant lime green menorah (well, a metal one with fluorescent tape on it, but it looks lime green!) by the side of the road not far from chez moi, and, every time I walk past it, I think about all the Chalet School fandom jokes about characters liking lime green clothes, furnishings and even vehicles.  It’s certainly hard to miss!

Told you I had an over-active imagination!  Thank you to anyone who’s read all that.  Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Cool Yule, or any other form of festive greeting you prefer.  They all work.  Peace and goodwill to one and all xxx.