Odysseus went to participate in the Trojan War and fought for ten years, until the wooden horse—his brainchild—was rolled up to the gates and into the city of Troy, allowing the Greeks to declare victory. He then spent the next ten years making his way back to his island kingdom, Ithaca. The tales of his heroic adventures on his journey back home, chronicled in The Odyssey, are some of the most well-known stories of the Western canon.
One of the people he meets on this epic journey is Circe, a powerful and feared witch exiled on an island, whom he tricks and subdues, and with whom he spends a year. It is this supporting character that Madeline Miller made the subject of her 2018 book, Circe.
Reading the Classics Today
The classics of antiquity are hardly dead or irrelevant texts. They’ve been read over and over across the centuries, and hold a special place in Western civilization, not only because they are foundational to it but also because they continue to inspire the cultural products of today. They have provided a range of tropes and character archetypes that continue to provide a base for creative storytelling.
However, like most aspects of Western public society and imagination, the Classics too have been largely dominated by the male perspective. Written by men, about men, and for a long time, to be consumed by men. There is, of course, no dearth of female characters, but they are rarely the subject of the story, and/or full multidimensional characters in their own right. The case for studying classical literature has been made several times, but the one area it did lasting damage in, was its portrayal of women. It is hardly alone in this, but it certainly crystallized stereotypes and the flat categories into which most women had to fall—the dutiful wife and mother, or the wily troublemaking seductress. Very few women in ancient mythology broke out of these restraints.
Retelling the Classics
Feminist retellings address this problem. Circe is hardly the first of its kind, having been preceded by works like The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia. In fact, 2018 (the year Circe was published), also saw the publication of another retelling by a female writer—The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. And both of these books were closely followed the next year by Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships. Miller herself has published other works of a similar vein before (The Song of Achilles, Galatea).
These myths seem to almost cry out for such creative treatment. They are rich stories of vivid and epic proportions, but most of its female characters seem empty and unrelatable, defined mainly by their beauty or reproductive capability. Today, the world is finally awakening, and even beginning to accept the female perspective. Thus, time seems right to retell some of Western society’s elementary stories from the point of view of its women. The exercise also makes these fundamental tales more accessible to today’s readers, both women and men, releasing them from the traditional elite stronghold of universities’ Classics departments.
A New Understanding of Circe from The Odyssey
Circe is a prime example, as it takes one of the world’s best-known epics, and flips it on its head, training the spotlight on a "supporting character" (as were most women in mythological stories) in Odysseus' story, while relegating him to the level of a brief appearance. We get a look into the life and mind of one of Greek mythology’s most mysterious characters—mysterious as she makes such a brief appearance in the whole canon, and as one of its very few witches.
In a world where superheroes and their origin stories hold the public in thrall, Miller gives us Circe’s origin story. And by doing so she ensures that the novel also serves a social function. While mysterious, Circe of ancient mythology falls perfectly within the “man-hater” archetype of women that men lament until today. She transformed Odysseus’ men into wild pigs when they landed on her island, and he managed to save himself only because of Hermes’ intervention. He even goes on to subdue her, or rather, conquer her.
In The Odyssey, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to why Circe transformed them. Miller gives the reader one - the fear of rape. This explanation is likely to have never entered the mind of a man, but the concern is a persistent and overarching one for most women in the presence of strange men. And by providing it, Miller also gives men a glimpse into the minds of women today when they behave “frigidly” and in a manner that discomfits them. This aspect of the novel also becomes sharply urgent in 2021, in the aftermath of the horrific murder of Sarah Everard. Circe’s action is reminiscent of the outpouring on social media of women detailing their experiences of harassment and the precautions they take on a daily basis to protect themselves from being assaulted which have become second nature to them. In light of this, Circe becomes the everywoman, and transforming the men into pigs is a perfectly reasonable precaution rather than an unreasonable act of malice and wickedness.
Another manner in which Circe became unconsciously timely is its description of the struggles of single parenthood in enforced seclusion. The scenario will be familiar to many such households during the past year’s pandemic lockdowns. In fact, even households with both parents could relate to Circe’s situation as she attempts to keep her son safe from the threat of Athena that lurks outside the boundaries of the island. It is a unique demonstration of what rewriting the myths from the female viewpoint can do. While today men too are single parents, this is a situation that is hardly likely to arise with most male characters of mythology.
During the times they were devised, myths served the function of explaining natural phenomena. In the modern world and post scientific facts, they don’t hold water in such a capacity anymore. However, classical stories can still be employed to fulfill one of literature’s most important tasks—recording. They can be made into vehicles to capture the current mood and movement of social thought. And feminist retellings, such as Circe, are doing just that.
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