Men Are Pigs

Circe, by Madeline Miller – When I heard about this book, I knew I should probably read it, but it took me a while to get a digital copy from the library. It’s a reinterpretation of the story of the witch from Greek mythology, daughter of Helios and the nymph Perse, and one of Odysseus‘ lovers. In truth, she’s not really even presented as a totally evil character in the myths; she turns Odysseus’ men to pigs, but she later changes them back and grants them hospitality on her island. And we know that Odysseus’ crew are a bunch of reckless dumbasses anyway, opening the bag of winds and killing Helios’ cattle. Perhaps they’re more in need of reformation than Circe, as it seems pretty classist to make the commander a tactical genius and all his subordinates idiots. And Odysseus himself is the one who had affairs with two women while his wife remained faithful to him. But revisiting witches has been in vogue for a while, and Miller is able to incorporate a feminist attitude. Circe is given a rather modern attitude in a society of largely indifferent gods, with deeper emotions than her compatriots. She shows sympathy to Prometheus, is spurned by Glaucos after making him into a god with her witchcraft, bonds with Daedalus, and has an affair with Hermes without ever really trusting him. She’s involved in the birth of the Minotaur to her sister Pasiphae, and her transformation of Odysseus’ crew is due to her having been harassed in the past. While some versions of the story give Circe a few children with Odysseus, the book simplifies it by giving her only one, Telegonus, who inherits his father’s passion for storytelling. When Telegonus sets out in search of his father and accidentally kills him, he takes Penelope and Telemachus back to Aiaia, where they all bond somewhat. Penelope turns out to not be especially mad with Circe, as it was really Athena who took him away; and she gains an interest in witchcraft herself. Telemachus bemoans his inability to live up to his father’s legacy, and how Odysseus was a distant and sometimes cruel father anyway. A widow bonding with the woman who’d had an affair with her late husband reminds me of Wicked, which is also an attempt to rehabilitate a wicked witch. Miller hews more closely to the source material than Gregory Maguire does, though. The account of Odysseus’ death by a spear made from the tail of a stingray (I guess he and the Crocodile Hunter had similar deaths) is said to appear in a lost poem known as the Telegony.

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