Trojan Women Act Two

Trojan Women Act Two

Fri 11 May

CIRCE by MADELINE MILLER. London: Bloomsbury, 2018.

It may not seem it but women rewriting Greek myth is an act of subversion. The Revisionist has already featured two translators, Emily Wilson and Caroline Alexander, who gave Homer a 21st-century reading. See:

Now a novelist, Madeline Miller has mined the content of The Odyssey to bring to the surface the story of Circe, the sea-born goddess who falls in love with Odysseus in Homer's homebound poem. Miller's Circe follows hot on the heels of Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury 2011) which focussed on the homoerotic. This time a woman is the subject of Miller’s poetic reconfiguring.

The French theorist, Hélène Cixous, says:

Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies –for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement […] She must write her self, because this is the invention of a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history. (Cixous, 1986: 309–11).

Circe is the sorceress of The Odyssey, daughter of Helios, and the nymph Perseis, who turned every man who walked onto her island into beasts. According to Homer, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, managed to circumvent Circe’s magical powers.

Miller’s Circe is a goddess with a backstory of abuse and neglect. When she meets Odysseus she is a woman in love. When Odysseus leaves her, he leaves her alone with her memories and sadness. Miller is good at the texture and tenor of sadness; its nostalgia and its sweetness.

In both accounts Circe is captivated by Odysseus, the hero who builds worlds with words: Odysseus who has the gift of eloquence. Other men, the men who came to her island before him, she turned into pigs. In mythology this is seen as an act of lewdness, cruelty and greed on Circe’s part. In Miller’s hands, Circe is a woman who has been mocked and assaulted by men. To protect herself, she turns them into what they are: pigs. Miller establishes a distance from the first version of the myth through her own interpretation of it. Circe is transformed from being the capricious, jealous, bitter and cruel goddess of the Homeric epic, into a frightened and lonely woman, who lets the man she loves go as her final act of love, unconsciously undermining the system of oppositions that puts women on the underside of history.

In this story Circe has the gift of reason – traditionally the purview of men – as opposed to the irrational sentiment of jealousy, traditionally imputed to women. Circe’s intellect is put to the service of reason in opposition to men’s animalistic desires and their irrational need for conquest and war. In rewriting the myth of Circe, Miller gives voice to the silenced side of the universe, only available to mortals who can get, like Circe, a little bit closer to the wisdom of gods.

Review by Lilian Pizzichini

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