Mother’s Day Reading: Circe by Madeline Miller

The literature classes that I teach for middle and high school students ended this week, and Sunday is Mother’s Day. I decided to acknowledge these two occasions by staying in bed late this morning to finish reading a wonderful book, Circe by Madeline Miller.

In The Odyssey, Circe, the so-called “witch of Aiaia,” is one of the many minor characters who delays beleaguered hero Odysseus on his 10-year journey back to his home in Ithaca–in this case, by her turning his sailors into swine. In the tale, Odysseus, with the support of Hermes, forces her to restore his men, takes her as a lover, and after a year’s residence, gets her to tell him how to avoid the dangers in the next phase of his journey (including a trip to visit the Underworld) before heading off and never seeing her again.

Things are a little more complicated in Madeline Miller’s 2018 novel, Circe. Odysseus doesn’t even show up until half-way through the book, allowing readers to learn about all the life experiences that this character, which Miller says is the first designated “witch” in Western literature, brought to her encounter with Odysseus. She portrays Circe as a divine woman who learns how to grow into her power and carve an independent life in the patriarchal culture of the Greeks and Greek mythology. Circe’s motivations and assessments of her time with Odysseus diverge from what I, at least, made up from reading the original myth. And once Odysseus leaves, her independent life goes on, continuing to grow and learn and even love after the classic hero has left his life with her behind.

I love this book for a number of reasons. I think Miller writes beautifully, and I enjoy her vividly descriptive prose about a world of a different place and a different time. I’m TOTALLY into myth, and for the vast majority of the book, Miller sticks with the events of the ancient myths. However, she brings an insightful modern interpretation of the same events we as a people have been reading or hearing for several centuries that encourages us to reconsider what we have believed from our traditional high school or college studies.

This book is described as a feminist version of this part of The Odyssey, and I suppose it is. There is certainly much critique about the failings of male misogyny and patriarchy. However, it is not a paean to female togetherness. Instead, some of the protagonist’s greatest trials or dangers come from other females. On the other hand, some of her greatest supporters have been male.

As I said earlier, it’s complicated…

Still, perhaps because I happened to read it this week (and maybe nothing is an accident), I particularly love this book because I think it captures the ferocity of a mother’s love. There are some not great moms, and some pretty bad moms in this book. But there are also some depictions of how I feel about being a mom, although I’m no mythical creature.

For example, I can totally relate (as in, I felt the same thing even if I couldn’t state it in such poetic prose) to this quote by one dedicated mom in the book talking about her child:

“I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.”

And in the book, this is not just fancy rhetoric. The character demonstrates her willingness to do what she had claimed and more.

In addition, as a mom of a child who is now an adult, but who is home from his college because of this pandemic, I could echo the words of a different mother from the one above:

“He is a good son, he has always been. I seek a little time before I lose him, before we are thrust into the tide again.

In this case, this mother is a model of giving our older children the support that we can, while encouraging them to follow their bliss, even if it leads them away from us–the last thing we selfishly would want for ourselves. I know that I, and many of my friends with college children, are enjoying the family meals and other time spent together during this stay-at-home period. Still, we want our children to have their college experience and their own life adventures. We can treasure this “little time” to have them home with us before we will release them, or even push them out of the nest, because we know that is what is best for them.

So there are many reasons to enjoy this book. But today, I celebrate it for how it demonstrates the love, the power, the wisdom, the strength, and the accomplishments of women, which can manifest itself in non-traditional ways.

All in all, a delightful way to start off a Mother’s Day Weekend.


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