Monday, July 29, 2019

Comments on Circe by Madeline Miller

Odysseus Vase Odysseus and the Sorceress Circe. Greek vase, c.700BC

 We regularly see novels these days where someone grows up in a dysfunctional family, is the unpopular girl in high school, discovers a vocation that gives her confidence and identity, has some experiences with men, good and bad, which stretch her emotional range and boost both her apprehension and her confidence, finds the right guy, and settles down to a satisfying life.  This is such a novel dressed up in Greek classic paraphernalia.  In archetypal terms, it is the ugly duckling story grafted onto the little mermaid story.  

Although incidents have plots, the main narrative is the story of her life.  She is born as a minor goddess to another minor goddess married to the sun god, Helios. She lives in a family compound with related gods where she is considered less attractive and is not given much of chance for a good marriage. She discovers she can work magic based on herbs and her own powers and, among other things, turns a fisherman (Glaucos) she befriends into a god and turns her obnoxious older sister Scylla into a monster that lurks on a rock and eats passing sailors.  For using magic, which is generally taboo to the gods, her father exiles her to a pleasant island. Several adventures involving love affairs with figures from Greek mythology mortal and immortal and her difficult relations with her sister and brother garnish her exile. Finally Odysseus arrives and stays for a year with her as stated in the Odyssey. But it is told from her point of view and she provides a lot of realistic details about what interests him and how his feelings run. In the end he goes on his adventures and she is pregnant. Alone on her island she has a difficult pregnancy and a hard time raising a child. As a young adult her son leaves to seek his father. He returns with his father’s wife, Penelope, and his half brother, Telemachus in tow. He recounts how he accidently killed Odysseus, then goes off to Italy to become a king; Circe turns her self into a mortal and forms a couple with Odysseus’ son by Penelope-; Penelope stays on the island.

The prose is smooth and clear if not exciting except for a sprinkling of poetic metaphors and phrases.

The characterization is mostly like the prose, effective but not exciting.  In one respect it is particularly effective.  That is its attention to how a few characters change over time. Time for the immortals differs from our time and it is a little vague. The period from her birth until Circe meets Odysseus is vaguely hundreds of years long. Of immortals, Circe alone changes. Miller constructs a convincing arc of character from an empathetic but petulant "teenager" to an enterprising and rebellious young adult, to a jaded thirty-something, to a harried mother, to a wise and capable woman. The progression of Odysseus is more of a crash, off stage, from arrogant hero to traumatized insecure monarch. The progress from infancy to young adulthood of their son is also carefully constructed and drawn. 

But a changing Odysseus brings us to an issue about this novel.

Let me emphasize that I am no Greek scholar in pointing these matters. I don't read Greek, but I’ve read lots of translations and secondary sources and am a knowledgeable amature.

The novel departs from the body of Greek mythology in various ways. Note, there is no bible of Greek mythology. Instead, a variety of often-conflicting sources spread over centuries, so it is sometimes complicated or even ambiguous whether something is a departure. Miller seems to have mainly used three sources. First the Odyssey, usually considered to have been created aroudn 800 BC.  Second is the Theogony (The Genealogy of the Gods) from about the same time. The third is the Telegony (the story of Odysseus son by Circe, Telegonus) ( The text of the Telegony is lost but it survives as a summary, as an adaptation in Latin from the 1st century BC, and other fragmentary sources. Miller has evidently studied at this Latin vesion.  There are other fragmentary and late sources, for example Ovid's Metamorphosis written in Latin shortly before the end of the BC's, that is about 800 years after Homerin a very different culture.

Anachronisms:  There are various minor anachronisms in the presentation.  For example at one point Circe describes Odysseus as being like a lawyer. There were no lawyers in Greek mythology and, indeed, the society was without a judiciary aparatus.

Choices:Millernecessarily makes some choices about which versions of Greek legends she uses. One is about which God's to describe. Versions very, but roughly speaking Greek gods fall into three groups: the Olympians, Zeus and his siblings and their dysfunctional spouses and children; the Titans who are the siblings and relatives of Zeus's father; finally the Chthonicdeities who are associated with the underworld and whose ceremonies were often at night (

In the Iliad, Homer limits himself to the Olympians and mainly so in the Odyssey. Miller recalls the war between the Titans and the Olympians, draws on thier rivalry for motivation, but chooses to ignore the chthonic deities, which were important in the everyday life of Greek people.  What is relevant here is that Circë is sometimes described as the child of Perse, a Titan ocean nymph, and sometimes described as the child of Hecatë a chthonic moon goddess, witch, and, like Legba, deity of crossroads.  In either case her father is Helios a Titan sun god. It always seemed to make more sense to me that Circe should be descended from Hecatë becuse she is a witch and witchcraft is not a common trop in Greek mythology.

Another change is the story of Glaucos. In European literature the image of Glaucos comes mostly from the version in the Metamorphosis by Ovid. Other classical references are scattered and brief. Ovid describes Glaucos as an immortal who was accidentally turned into a God by exposure to a magical something or other. He then falls in love with the nymph Scylla who rejects him. He goes to Circe, a competent witch in Ovid's version, seeking a love potion, which leads to various ill consequences. Miller has changed the story. In her version a naïve Circe falls in love with the mortal Glaucos and turns him into a God because she wants him to live forever with her. As a sea God he falls in love with Scylla, not Circe, which leads to various ill consequences. Miller's treatment of Glaucos artfully presages her account of Circe's later love for Telemachus where she wisely, in Miller's view, resolves their difference in mortality by becoming mortal herself.

To take another significant choice, Odysseus’ death is not recounted in the Odyssey, but there is a clear prediction by the highly reputable seer Tiresias that he will die of peaceful old age. In the Telegony he is killed by Telegonus and Miller chooses that version.

Creations: Occasionally Miller makes up legends, at least as far as I understand them. For example, the origin of the poison spine that kills Odysseus. It is in the Telegony that he is killed with a spear tipped with a spine from a ray, but there is no story about Circe marching under sea to confront a ray god, there is no ray god.

Violations of the classic culture: The most important ways Miller departs from the spirit Greek mythology have to do with the importance for her of change. In Greek mythology there is no notion of gods changing. A god's stage in life is as immutable a characteristic as her domain of power, her sacred animal, her weapon, etc. A minor example occurs in a conversation between Circe and Glaucos (before his deification). They have been hanging out together. In the first place, in classical mythology gods and mortals don't hang out. They meet during dramatic or significant moments. The closest thing to hanging out is the relation between Athena and Odyseus in the Odyssey, but even there the goddess only shows up when Odyseus is particularly in need. Circe mentions in chatting that she met Prometheus. Then-mortal Glaucos is startled because Prometheus crime and punishment occurred hundreds of years ago in time as he figures it. 

"His eyes were fixed on me. 'But you are my age.' My face had tricked him. It looked as young as his."

But mortals in Greek mythological times, thought of gods as "ageless." That is, age did not pertain to them.

Less casual is her account of Odysseus as a figure of change. A central point in the Odyssey is that despite his adventures, misadventures, frequent deceit of others about himself, and frequent changes of appearance and body, implemented by Athena, from ragged, aged beggar to buff warrior, despite these things he remains essentially unchanged. This is unlike, say, Gilgamesh, the protagonist of the roughly contemporary near eastern epic, who through complex adventures and self-reflection accepts his mortality and becomes a better king. Miller crashes Odysseus into an frightened, desperate figure, something deeply contrary to Homer's image of the hero.

Another departure from the classical conception of immortals is Circë’s unhappy childhood and adolescence as the slighted girl/goddess. Gods may embody emotions, and frequently bicker like the members of a dysfunctional family, but these conflicts manifest in traumatic scenes like Hephaestus discovering his wife Aphrodite in bed with her brother Ares, but they lack protracted identity sieges. This is the stuff of current young adult novels, not Greek mythology. 

So what? Miller has modified and departed from the letter and the spirit of her sources in various ways to implement a typical 21st century story. Why should that matter? The lengthy and thorough Wikipedia article on Circe documents how her story has been recounted and her image represented in disparate ways over the centuries. ( She may be a symbol of gluttony, of lustfulness, of the evils of witchcraft, as an embodiment of evil female wiles or a feminist figure as in Miller’s novel, etc. Her story maybe a homily against drunkenness or on occasion to question whether living without reason like a beast is better than being rationally human. It varies as the interest of individual times and writers demand.  Why should we expect anything else in the 21st-century?

For me the issue lies in whether we 21st-century Americans want to regard ourselves, even enriching versions of our own preoccupations, or do we want to reach out for human culture and caring.

It is interesting to compare Circe with two other recent novels set in Greek mythic times. One is: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, which retells the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon from the viewpoint of the captive slave girl whom they fought over.  The gods are almost absent from Barker’s book, which is about mortals save for the sea nymph Thetis who is a background character shadowing Achilles.  Barker's book sticks very close the events of the Iliad and makes us feel the emotions of an ordinary upper-class girl of those times responding with a modern psychology to the mostly terrible events she witnesses.  Barker is searching the meaning of war by cross-fertilizing its ancient action with modern understanding of trauma.

Another is Colm Toibín's House of Names, which tells a story of Orestes’ vengeance on his mother.  Toibín invents an entirely different story hardly related to the Orestes portrayed by Aeschylus in the Oresteia. Gods are present merely in the images and feelings that human characters have of them. He projects feelings and reactions of someone in Orestes position following a modern, dynamic psychology, and the events of the story develop from the difference between Toibín’s premises in the premises of a classic Greek.  He makes us consider what it would mean, universally, in human culture, to kill your mother, by casting his made up story against the shadow of the mythic version.

Barker’s novel amplifies and Toibín’s novel almost abandons what is handed down form antiquity.  Barker’s Brieseis and Toibín’s Orestes are no more like the corresponding classical figures than is the Circe in an 18thcentury French rationalism version.  But they tell us something by reaching out of our own perspective.

Another interesting comparison is with Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Shakespeare followed closely his principal source, the Greek writer Plutarch, who worked shortly after the events in a time when Rome first dominated the Mediterranean politically and was itself much influenced by Greek culture. He was a keen observer of men and mores. He was a Greek diplomat and had lived in Rome, so he knew both cultures well.  Shakespeare carefully preserves his perspective in many ways, for example in presenting the suicide of four central characters. For Christians of Shakespeare’s England suicide was a mortal sin, your soul went to hell, as Hamlet considers in his famous soliloquy. For Romans of the republican period it was an appropriate, indeed praiseworthy act in the event of catastrophic defeat and when we watch those scenes, the perspective has passed from Plutarch, through a translator, to Shakespeare, to us. Consider the scenes in which Brutus and others fall upon their swords, and also the scenes when other characters like Anthony react to the news. Consider Anthony’s praise for Brutus against his own later suicide. Here we feel deeply the character of other cultures.  It is this meaningfulness that the novel Circe fails to provide.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Comments on the 2018 Kaua'i Writers Conference

From November 5th - 11th I attended the Kaua'i Writers Conference ( It had two aspects, first four days of master classes, and then three days of the conference more broadly.

Kaua'i ( is a genuine tropical paradise, a relatively small Hawaiian island with a population of about 60,000. It happens my son teaches high school there, which is one reason I attended.  The picture is one I took of closing ceremonies on the beech.

The master classes seemed to have up to about 30 students each and met for three hours a day with one or sometimes two teachers. ( In the conference there were a variety of talks on various aspects of writing and publication. (

It took place in a grandiose, slightly worn resort with the largest swinging pool in Hawaii half-ringed with hot tubs and an island in the middle.  All overlooked a beach on an inlet. ( Our room was nice but not fancy, the food was good by conference standards. Things generally ran smoothly.

Demographics: My perspective may have limited my count, but I'd guess there were about 200 people in Master classes and about 300 attendees to the conference as a whole. There was a range of age and nationality, but the prominent group was middle-aged Caucasian women. My impression was that about half of the attendees were from the Hawaiian Islands.  There were a scattering of Asians and two blacks (one from Nigeria).  A few places had been allocated to students from a local college. I was sitting for lunch one day with a Brit. Conversation turned to how people stood in line for busses in different cultures. (I. E. a lone Brit is visibly in a queue whereas in Greece any group is a mob.) A young Asian woman sitting next to me had been rather quiet, so I asked her where she was from. She said Saipan; she was one of the local college group. I asked about bus queues. She said there are no busses in Saipan.

My impression was that the most popular genre was memoirs by people who believed they had led interesting lives or, more often, had had interesting jobs or professions.

I attended the master class given by Nicholas Delbanco ( on voice. It had some virtues and some faults. The faults were size and the room. Some fell away, but at the beginning there were 30 people. The room, which could have held 60 people, had narrow tables arranged in ranks as for hearing a lecture; it should have been is some sort of round-table arraignment. The virtues were the writers and the teacher. There were too many of them, but the writers were almost universally smart, experienced, and serious. Typically they were people who had written in some other field (I.e. the author of several history books, a lawyer who had written books on law etc.) and now wanted to write fiction. 
Delbanco has immense experience and resources as a teacher of contemporary writing and did marvelously considering the number of participants and the inappropriate room.

The version of the conference I attended two years ago ( was dominated by people form the traditional publishing world to the degree that, with a couple of exceptions in panels, it was as if hardcover books were the only game going on in publication, a strange illusion.  In 2018 that was no longer the case. Talks included discussion of electronic publishing, self-publishing, how to manipulate Amazon, and something new to me, "hybrid publishing", a sort of cross between self and traditional publishing, where a publisher selects a book submitted by an agent or author and they then share the cost and allocate any profits in varying proportions depending on what each contributed.

Never the less agents and prominent writers set a lot of the tone.  Characteristically the prominent writers urged people in the audience to be true to themselves, write what they inwardly wanted and the like, whereas the agents delivered strong guidelines about what the publishing industry wants and expects. Jayne Smiley, who always intended to and does write different sorts of books, commented that winning the Pulitzer Prize helped in arguing with her publisher. Her agent, however, told a story that elicited some sympathy for publishers. There used to be a mystery writer named Sue Grafton who wrote a series of rigidly similar mystery novels. Her publisher wanted her to write them as fast as twice a year whereas she wanted to slow down to one every two years, or something like that. The agent pointed out that at that time Grafton’s novels accounted for about half the publisher's income.

A couple of writers who had a calling to speak for their minority group were prominent in the conference two years ago and that was a live topic of discussion. Not this time.

Of the many talks ( the one I attended and enjoyed most was Smiley. I've read only one of her books (A Thousand Acres) and was only moderately impressed, but she's fun and smart and has had an interesting career.  The one I liked least was billed as on the Jungian notion of the hero’s journey. I thought, good, I can get ideas about plot structure. It turns out she was interested in only on step, (the second, "Refusing the Call"). She gave us brief writing assignments related to evocative phrases. One was "The stakes were high." Feeling irritable, I wrote about an enclosure walled by stakes so high they made the garden shady.