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Embracing One’s Vulnerability and Renouncing One’s Divinity in A Female-Centric Retelling of a Greek Myth

"Circe" by Madeline Miller.

Myra here.

I read this book as part of #LitsyBuddyRead. While this modern retelling of a Greek myth can not be neatly classified as a crime/thriller novel, there is murder here and betrayal, and a few mysteries that need to be unraveled. And so, here it is.


Circe

Written by: Madeline Miller
Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing (2018)
ISBN: 1526603330 (ISBN13: 9781526603333). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book quotes edited via Typorama.

It has been quite awhile since I’ve read this novel, so I am trying to piece together fragments of what I remember feeling as I was reading this modern retelling of Greek mythology as perceived and narrated by Circe. Truth be told, while I recall Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis – I cannot remember who Circe was, in my cursory reading of D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. It appears that she is one of the minor characters in the saga of the gods and goddesses; being a nymph, found on the fringes of the gods’ more dominant narratives.

I hesitate to call this novel feminist, since I have also been reading a number of other readers’ reflections who were bristling at Circe’s naiveté and seeming-need to define herself through the relationships that she has formed with the men in her immortal life.

Yet, I find myself veering away from this dismissive attitude towards Circe, diminishing her complexity by relegating the story to just another simpering, needy female narrative. In the #LitsyBuddyRead discussion we had a few months ago, I shared these reflections:

I also liked how Circe seemed to have made the most out of her exile, sharpening her skills in sorcery, feeling herself getting stronger and more powerful each day – even as she sheds parts of her being that made her gravitate towards humans.

I felt that Circe’s character was alive: flawed as it may be. It was real, poignant, vindictive, petty, resolute, yet oh so vulnerable. Her sense of isolation and loneliness shone through even while she entertained herself in various ways, as she worked on perfecting her craft.

Her self-knowledge was what drew me to her character; her deep self-awareness and willingness to do what she felt like doing, regardless of the consequences – yet never totally foolhardy, too. I like how a woman will be able to see her vulnerability reflected in Circe, despite her being immortal and a nymph. The fact that her magical powers can easily be stripped due to physical weakness and a male’s capacity to overpower women due to brute strength was told unflinchingly and unapologetically.

I also appreciated how the other myths became even more alive for me, as perceived through Circe’s eyes: Daedalus and Icarus, Odysseus and his sons Telegonus and Telemachus, Medea and Jason – while “minor” characters in this narrative, I remember them with greater clarity and multi-coloured vividness now as their lives get entangled, albeit briefly, with Circe’s. I was also fascinated with Circe’s love-hate relationship with Pasiphae, the Mother of the Minotaur, and her adamant refusal to be seen as essentially the same as her cruel and ruthless sister.

I suppose what made me truly resonate with Circe is how it didn’t try too hard to be adamantly independent, or undeniably strong, or be the poor martyr in the story. There was the fierce sense of solitude and otherness and an acknowledgment of her needs as matter-of-fact, and the complexity in her character that, at least to me, provided that ring of authenticity that I can connect to as a woman. Read this. If anything, it makes for lengthy discussions and debates about what it means to be a woman, really.


#LitWorld2018GB Update: United States of America

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