Teaching with Circe

Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe, was released just under a year ago to well-deserved admiration and praise. Miller’s feminist twist on the myths surrounding Circe “never distorts their original shape; it only illuminates details we hadn’t noticed before,” as one reviewer puts it. The long, immortal arc of Circe’s life covers several of the most popular and well-known stories of myth, which Miller pulls from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, and even Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica.

This creative faithfulness to Greek myth combined with the first-person female perspective we so rarely find in ancient literature gives Circe great potential as a teaching tool in mythology courses. Miller’s lively and brisk storytelling style gives the stories an immediacy and clarity that many undergraduates struggle to find in textbook tellings of myth, or even in myth source texts themselves like Euripidean tragedies. This post aims to give a few pointers for using popular fiction in class without feeling like you’ve somehow sold out on our rigorous (and sometimes stodgy) discipline.

In our Classical Mythology course here at the University of Iowa, we assign a creative essay to students at the end of the semester to help students reflect on the process of mythmaking, as well as how Greek myths reflect the cultural norms and assumptions of the ancient world. Students must write an original 4-5 page myth, either modifying and expanding an ancient myth plotline or inventing their own entirely; they must also write an analysis of their own story explaining how their myth reflects social and cultural norms of the society in which it is set. In the best way possible, Circe feels like Madeline Miller took our assignment and ran with it. As a class, you might use the novel to reflect on the myriad possibilities of myth and the coexistence of conflicting versions of certain stories in the ancient texts, since Miller does not follow her source texts slavishly. You could discuss what other endings to Circe’s story students could imagine, what avenues of narrative Miller pursues and which she closes off for herself through the choices she makes about Circe’s life and character. You might even use this as a jumping-off point for spinning out the stories of other minor characters in myth, such as Calypso.

Reading and discussing the novel in class would be an excellent way to help students identify cultural biases and assumptions that are embedded in the ancient versions of Circe’s story. For example, in both Ovid and Homer, Circe transforms men into pigs out of a fearsome feminine malice. Since Circe is a creation of the male imagination in these texts, there is no consideration for what other motives she might have for treating men so viciously. When we read these source texts with students, it is easy to take such a characterization of Circe at face value; her wicked wiles are just one more obstacle on Odysseus’ journey home, one more opportunity for the “real hero” of the story to show off his own wily nature.

Miller turns this characterization on its head. She gives Circe a painfully real motivation for distrusting and transforming all men who come to her island: self-defense and the PTSD of sexual trauma. In the novel, Circe narrates her own brutal rape by sailors who take advantage of her solitude and hospitality; thus the first set of pig-men is revenge, but the rest she changes in order to neutralize the threat of harm before it becomes real. Like many survivors today, Circe keeps her story to herself; for generations, she does not tell a soul (not even Odysseus or her own son), until the end of the novel when she and Telemachus (Odysseus and Penelope’s son) have become lovers. As teachers, we must weigh the advantages of the representation of a survivor-centered perspective with the triggering potential for survivors of sexual violence among our students. It is a topic which will require careful thought and advance preparation on your part individually as an instructor as well as collectively with your class, but it is a topic which has been historically overlooked, assumed, or otherwise poorly handled in discussions of Classical texts. (Shameless plug: I’ve written with Prof. Arum Park about teaching other classical rape narratives here; we list some resources to help you get started).

The rape and its psychological aftermath for Circe is also an excellent example of how the novel treats women’s issues in general as a natural and necessary facet of Classical texts, not just a popular topic. Circe’s first-person perspective throughout the novel offers us a fictional but probable example of how it must have felt to be a woman in antiquity — to be constantly overlooked, assumed to be vulnerable and/or stupid, locked into a prescribed role in life, never able to share one’s most important thoughts and feelings. In the novel, after Circe transforms Glaucos from fisherman to sea god and Scylla from beautiful nymph to ravaging monster, she tries to confess what she has done. She explains how she used the flowers sprung from Kronos’ blood to change both Glaucos and Scylla to their true natures. None of her male relatives — her father Helios, her grandfather Oceanos, her other Titan uncles — believe her. They tell her that she and the herbs have no power, that they wouldn’t have told her where those flowers grow if they could have caused such harm (because of course these river gods assume that they know better than their niece who speaks with a mortal voice). No one will believe in her power, or the power of magical herbs, until they hear it from a male: Circe’s brother Aeetes comes home from his kingdom in Colchis and shows Helios his own magical powers.

J.W. Waterhouse, 1892. Circe Invidiosa (Wikimedia Commons)

This provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the power of the storyteller with students. Who gets to write the stories, both fictional/mythical and historical? Whose voice is heard and whose is silenced? Which version of a narrative becomes dominant and why? Are the voices of women in classical texts really women’s voices, or are their speeches simply the male writer’s perspective, ventriloquized in a female character? Circe has always been a pawn in the games of other heroes. Here she is the center of her own story, richly characterized and multifaceted.

It is important to note that our understanding of male characters stands to gain here, too. Of course Odysseus has always been “the man of twists and turns,” or, as Emily Wilson has it, simply “complicated”; Wilson’s new translation in particular has turned the focus of Odysseus’ twists away from his mere cleverness and opened up conversations on less savory aspects of his character. Miller’s novel does a similar thing: while the gods are portrayed as universally self-absorbed, not a single hero in the novel is one-sided. Odysseus, Daedalus, Minos, Telemachus, even divine Circe herself, are all multifaceted individuals, with both good and shameful things in their history and in their future potentialities. Through their conversations with Circe, Miller shows our heroes for what they are: flawed humans. Even Circe herself is open to student readers’ critique: though Miller’s Circe presents herself as vastly different from the other nymphs and gods, in some ways she is just like them, lacking in self-knowledge and quick to vindictive anger.

Teaching with popular fiction does not have to equal pandering, not even in a discipline as uppity as Classics. In many ways, Madeline Miller has done exactly what Euripides, Ovid, Apollonius, and countless other classical authors did in their works: she has taken a basic myth and put her own twist on it. Her novel thus makes an excellent comparative companion to the texts of those authors, each highlighting certain features of the other. Circe challenges readers to think through many of the same issues our original myth writing assignment does: how myths both reflect and reinforce cultural norms; how the perspective and authority of the storyteller influence the narrative; how multiple versions of myths interact to enrich the portraits of their characters. Miller has given us, bard-like, the Epic of Circe, Witch of Aeaea. We would be remiss, I think, to deny our students the opportunity to engage and challenge this modern version of her story alongside the ancient ones.

Bookcover to "Circe".

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