While reading Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I wrote about yesterday, I watched how she engages with previous literary depictions of Circe, Odysseus, and others. I think that she especially owes a debt to Margaret Atwood’s “Circe/Mud Poems,” which were important to the feminist movement in the 1970s and which I applied to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
Aware as I was of Atwood’s Odysseus–he’s an oblivious man whose sense of entitlement blinds him to his privilege–I was confused by Miller’s initially positive depiction. After all, with the exception of Homer, authors have not been kind to the Ithacan. Sophocles (Philoctetes) and Euripides (Hecuba) regard him as an unscrupulous schemer, as does Virgil in The Aeneid. Dante puts him in the eighth circle of hell as one who misuses his tremendous talents to lead men astray, and Tennyson, drawing on Dante rather than Homer, is highly ambivalent. While many read Tennyson’s stirring lines as approval—”Come, my friends,/ ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world”—it is this very quality that leads Dante to put him in Inferno: Ulysses’s glib tongue leads his men to their destruction. Here’s Tennyson:
[F]or my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
It so happens that listening to Ulysses puts you in the gulfs, not the Happy Isles. Here’s Dante:
"I and my men were stiff and slow with age when we sailed at last into the narrow pass where, warning all men back from further voyage, Hercules' Pillars rose upon our sight. Already I had left Ceuta on the left; Seville now sank behind me on the right. "Shipmates," I said, "who through a hundred thousand perils have reached the West, do not deny to the brief remaining watch our senses stand Experience of the world beyond the sun. Greeks! You were not born to live like brutes, but to press on toward manhood and recognition!' With this brief exhortation I made my crew so eager for the voyage I could hardly have held them back from it when I was through; and turning our stem toward morning, our bow toward night, we bore southwest out of the world of man; we made wings of our oars for our fool's flight. That night we raised the other pole ahead with all its stars, and ours had so declined it did not rise out of its ocean bed. Five times since we had dipped our bending oars beyond the world, the light beneath the moon had waxed and waned, when dead upon our course we sighted, dark in space, a peak so tall I doubted any man had seen the like. Our cheers were hardly sounded, when a squall broke hard upon our bow from the new land: three times it sucked the ship and the sea about as it pleased Another to order and command. At the fourth, the poop rose and the bow went down till the sea closed over us and the light was gone." (Trans. John Ciardi)
Ulysses isn’t the only inhabitant of hell that Tennyson alludes to. Ulysses’s celebration of will power directly echoes Milton’s Satan, whose eloquence also leads his followers to their destruction:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield…
As I noted in an earlier post ,
Tennyson recognizes that there’s something Satanic in Ulysses’s drive and golden tongue. Not man enough to govern Ithaca, which he relegates to a son whom he regards as soft, he will sacrifice his crew to satisfy his restless striving. Unlike [William Ernest] Henley [in “Invictus”], Tennyson sees the dark side of heroic individualism.
America has just traded in a man whose tongue enflamed millions for a low-key, competent leader. Which would you rather have?
Back to Circe’s Miller, whose view of Odysseus eventually evolves to something closer to Dante’s and Tennyson’s descriptions. If her Circe initially speaks positively of Odysseus, it is because she too is snowed by him. As a result, she gives the son she has had by him (Telegonus) a mistaken account of his father, leading to disastrous consequences.
Miller’s Circe has a much healthier relationship with Telemachus, who becomes her partner and in whom she discovers unexpected depth. In preferring the son to the father, she chooses the sensitive man over the man of action. In Tennyson’s poem, this man of action regards his son with thinly-veiled contempt, all but calling him a bureaucratic drudge. Don’t be deceived by the “most blameless is he,” which is a back-handed compliment:
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
Both Miller’s and Atwood’s Circe must evolve in their taste for men, from dominant to sensitive. Atwood’s Circe at first allows Odysseus to control her, admiring his male forcefulness. Writing in 1974, Atwood is criticizing those women who let men walk all over them:
There are so many things I want
you to have. This is mine, this
tree, I give you its name,
here is food, white like roots, red,
growing in the marsh, on the shore,
I pronounce these names for you also.
This is mine, this island, you can have
the rocks, the plants
that spread themselves flat over
the thin soil, I renounce them.
You can have this water,
this flesh, I abdicate,
I watch you, you claim
without noticing it,
you know how to take.
Eventually Atwood’s Circe comes to see the emptiness that Dante detects. The vaunted heroic adventure involves nothing more than “permit[ting] yourself to be shoved by the wind from coast to coast to coast,” even as you tell yourself that you’re the one in control:
There must be more for you to do
than permit yourself to be shoved
by the wind from coast
to coast to coast, boot on the boat prow
to hold the wooden body
under, soul in control
Don’t you get tired of killing those whose deaths have been predicted and are therefore dead already? Don’t you get tired of wanting to live forever? Don’t you get tired of saying Onward?
Atwood’s Circe eventually learns that there is more to life than domination:
Ask at my temples
where the moon snakes, tongues of the dark
speak like bones unlocking, leaves falling
of a future you won’t believe in
Ask who keeps the wind
Ask what is sacred
Miller’s Circe arrives at the same understanding after her father, the sun god Aeetes, exiles her to an island for challenging him:
I stepped into the woods and my life began.
I learned to braid my hair back, so it would not catch on every twig, and how to tie my skirt at the knee to keep the burrs off. I learned to recognize the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral. I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac, and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the harbor safe for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud. I stroked the glossy brown scorpions who braved me with their tails. Their poison was barely a pinch. I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s halls had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.
…And when I did get lonely, … then there was always the forest. The lizards darted along the branches, the birds flashed their wings. The flowers, when they saw me, seemed to press forward like eager puppies, leaping and clamoring for my touch.
Miller doesn’t entirely reject enterprising men and makes Circe’s son Telegonus—hero of the lost Greek epic The Telegony—an adventurer who will found a kingdom. (To confuse stereotypes, however, she also makes him gay.) Once Circe sees through Odysseus, however, she comes to appreciate Telemachus, who rejects the destiny that the goddess Athena has in store for him. Rather than engage in killing—having slain the Ithacan handmaids at his father’s command still haunts him—he wants to do woodwork and live with Circe. This Telemachus may be the kind of man that Atwood has in mind when she talks of those who “have escaped from these mythologies with barely their lives”:
Men with the heads of eagles
no longer interest me
or pig-men, or those who can fly
with the aid of wax and feathers
or those who take off their clothes
to reveal other clothes
or those with skins of blue leather
or those golden and flat as a coat of arms
or those with claws, the stuffed ones
with glass eyes; or those
hierarchic as greaves and steam-engines.
All these I could create, manufacture,
or find easily: they swoop and thunder
around this island, common as flies,
sparks flashing, bumping into each other,
on hot days you can watch them
as they melt, come apart,
fall into the ocean
like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes..
I search instead for the others,
the ones left over,
the ones who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives;
they have real faces and hands, they think
of themselves as
wrong somehow, they would rather be trees.
Another election aside: we’re currently seeing the defeated Donald Trump “melt, come apart, fall into the ocean” like a sick gull,
I remember this poem being very important to me as a man when I read it in the early 1980s. It reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s “The Knight,” which is also about men who believe they must present a glittering image to the world, even as they are disintegrating inside. Given that we have been through four years of a president celebrating toxic masculinity, Miller’s Telemachus comes as a relief.
Mythic archetypes provide authors with fertile ground for exploring foundational identity questions. Miller’s Circe is, at different points in the story, obedient child, rebellious daughter, vengeful rival, nurturing earth mother, powerful witch, fierce warrior, protective mother, and loving wife. The novel is a worthy entry in the long and distinguished history of authors turning to the Odysseus story to understand the human condition.
Further thought: I haven’t mentioned Miller’s handling of Penelope, a survivor wife who keeps her own counsel. Penelope ends up on Circe’s island and, in Circe’s suggestion that she might enjoy mentoring young women, I recognized a nod to Atwood’s Penelopiad, which features Penelope’s complex relationship with her handmaids.