To begin with, I admit that it’s actually been a very long time since I finished reading the book. In fact, it has been so long that I have forgotten when exactly I finished reading this book. I believe it was in mid-August that I finished reading this and it is mid-November now. So it has been a good 3 months since I finished reading the book and hence some of it may not come back to me as fresh. Despite the passage of time, the mention of this book evokes a few strong emotions in my mind and I believe that this is where Madeline Miller succeeds.
Circe is an account of the life and trials of a Greek goddess. The book is set in the age of heroes and we see a number of the heroes of the Greek mythology walk in and out of this story. Born to Helios, the titan of the skies, Circe is unassuming at first. She is neither the prettiest, nor the strongest and in-fact does not possess any distinguishable traits that would make her stand out among her many half-siblings. Circe still craves her fathers approval and loiters at his feet while he spends his time in the halls of her grandfather Oceanus the titan of the Oceans. Despite trying to win her father’s favor, Circe only manages to stoke his fury. Unbeknownst to her father, she falls in love with a human Glaucus and succesfully transforms him into a god by making him ingest the essence of certain flowers that were born from the blood of the titan Kronos. In a cruel turn of the fates, Glaucus spurns her in favor of the nymph Syclla and our jealous protagonist uses the same flowers to turn Syclla into a monster. The news of these transformation fall on the Zeus’s ears and he forces Helios to banish Circe to an eternal exile on the island of Aeaea fearing her inexplicable and unfathomable powers. This proves to be a blessing in disguise as Circe uses this time and solitude to embark on a journey of self discovery. She uses the beginning of her exile to study and hone her witchcraft, tending gardens and experimenting with draughts. Over the centuries she spends on Aeaea, Circe interacts with many mythical figures and heroes from the Greek mythology often changing the course of their journeys.
Some of the thoughts that I had while reading this book that are not really related to the storyline, but still a part of it are:
- Gods with human flaws are more realistic. The infallible concept of omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God is super hard to explain when you looks through the prism of the real world. How would you explain an omnipotent god if there exist so much misery in the world? Why does God not wipe all the misery away? All these questions are answered by easily if Gods also had flaws.
- When you are a god and you have eternity in front of you and you do not age or die, you become slightly psychopathic because you are immune to suffering.
- Having experienced eternity, a God’s worldview will be very different from that of a humans. They will no longer be bound by our notions of right and wrong especially having seen morality evolve and sometimes entirely turn around on its head.
- Being alive forever is very boring. One of the reasons why Greek gods like to meddle so much in the lives of heroes is precisely because they are bored.
- God’s in general are also very vicious creatures because they know that you cannot kill them. They know that no harm can befall them so they’re absolute dicks and often there is nothing you can do about it.
- When you have an infinite amount of time, you actually discover new strengths and new skills and new powers and magic hidden inside you. Boredom is the ultimate blessing in disguise. As you learn to get comfortable with the world around you as it is you turn inwards and discover a while new world of opportunities. I’m not sure something that the author intended to say, but I believe that is also a message you can take from here.
- Circe never had to clean a single dish in her life, never had to sweep up the floor or do any other mundane task. This gave her infinite time to focus on what she wanted to do. The subtle message I read from this is that as we free ourselves from things we have to do survive perhaps through delegation or automation, we create time for doing things we want to do. Things that otherwise would have been replaced with doing dishes or sweeping up the floor.
The book does end on a more positive note though. We see that towards the end of the book, Circe chooses to become mortal and even bargain her freedom from exile by cornering her great titan father Helios. Circe’s story and more importantly her choice in the end reminds us that in the end, the greatest gift we can receive from the Gods is death because death is a necessary precursor for new beginnings.