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Highlights from Circe by Madeline Miller

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2019

I’ve been enjoying sharing the highlighted passages from the Kindle books I’ve read lately. Going over your notes is a good way to solidify a book’s themes, ideas, and plot threads in your mind, especially for someone like me who tends to forget a lot of the earlier bits of what I’m reading. So I thought I’d go back through some previous reads in the same fashion, sharing some of the best bits of favorite books and refreshing my memory.

First up is Madeline Miller’s Circe, which was recommended to me by my friend Alaina. In the NY Times, Alexandra Alter called Circe “a bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right”.

I’m starting here because I recently finished her debut novel, The Song of Achilles (the highlights from which I will share soon). I loved both books — Miller’s prose is somehow both spare and chock full of lyrical analogies and clever turns of phrase. Many of passages below highlight those qualities in her writing.

Page 3:

My mother did not argue further. Like everyone, she knew the stories of Helios’ temper when he was crossed. However gold he shines, do not forget his fire.

Page 14:

You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain. There is nothing more foreign to them, and so nothing they ache more deeply to see.

Page 37 (I am already bracing myself for the “you don’t understand…” of my kids’ teen years):

That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.

Page 48:

All I knew was that I hated her. For I was like any dull ass who has ever loved someone who loved another. I thought: if only she were gone, it would change everything.

Page 66 (on useful fictions):

“Yes,” he said. “That is how it works, Circe. I tell Father that my sorcery was an accident, he pretends to believe me, and Zeus pretends to believe him, and so the world is balanced. It is your own fault for confessing. Why you did that, I will never understand.”

Page 67:

All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.

Page 85:

You can teach a viper to eat from your hands, but you cannot take away how much it likes to bite.

Page 90:

He stood up — I will not say gracefully, for he was too solidly built for that — but easily, like a door swinging on a well-fitted hinge.

Page 129:

I had not thought him so bold. But of course he was. Artist, creator, inventor, the greatest the world had known. Timidity creates nothing.

Page 129 (Reminds me of the quote “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.”):

I yearned for his hands, for all of him, mortal though he was, distant and dying though he would always be.

Page 132:

In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.

Page 138 (a metaphor for inequality in America):

Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect, and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.

Page 186:

And Odysseus, I thought. The spiral shell. Always another curve out of sight.

Page 186:

But there is a hand that must gather all those pieces and make them whole. A mind to guide the purpose, and not flinch from war’s necessities.”

“And that is your part,” I said. “Which means you are like Daedalus after all. Only instead of wood, you work in men.”

The look he gave me. Like purest, unmixed wine. “After Achilles died, Agamemnon named me Best of the Greeks. Other men fought bravely, but they flinched from war’s true nature. Only I had the stomach to see what must be done.”

His chest was bare and hatched with scars. I tapped it lightly, as if sounding what lay within. “Such as?”

“You promise mercy to spies so they will spill their story, then you kill them after. You beat men who mutiny. You coax heroes from their sulks. You keep spirits high at any cost. When the great hero Philoctetes was crippled with a festering wound, the men lost their courage over it. So I left him behind on an island and claimed he had asked to be left. Ajax and Agamemnon would have battered at Troy’s locked gates until they died, but it was I who thought of the trick of the giant horse, and I spun the story that convinced the Trojans to pull it inside. I crouched in the wooden belly with my picked men, and if any shook with terror and strain, I put my knife to his throat. When the Trojans finally slept, we tore through them like foxes among soft-feathered chicks.”

Page 190:

It was a trick of his, to set a sentence out like a plate on a table and see what you would put on it.

Page 191:

Sometimes, I would see him watching me. An intentness would come over his face, and he would begin to ask me his casual, sideways questions. About the island, about my father, the loom, my history, witchcraft. I had come to know that look well: it was the same he wore when he spotted a crab with a triple claw, or wondered over the trick tides of Aiaia’s east bay. The world was made of mysteries, and I was only another riddle among the millions. I did not answer him, and though he pretended frustration, I began to see that it pleased him in some strange way. A door that did not open at his knock was a novelty in its own right, and a kind of relief as well. All the world confessed to him. He confessed to me.

Page 194:

I held off as long as I could, but in the end she was the scab that I must pick.

Page 208:

Odysseus, son of Laertes, the great traveler, prince of wiles and tricks and a thousand ways. He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.

Page 214 (there’s a relief in knowing, no matter how dire the details):

My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.

Page 217:

Do not listen to your enemy, Odysseus had once told me. Look at them. It will tell you everything.

Page 220 (reason != wisdom):

I looked into that shining gray gaze, her eyes like two hanging jewels, twisting to catch the light. She was smiling, her hand open towards me, as if ready to receive mine. When she had spoken of children, she had nearly crooned, as if to lull her own babe. But Athena had no babe, and she never would. Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.

Page 243 (endurance is also a virtue of mine…and a detriment):

But endurance had always been my virtue and I kept on.

Page 271 (I still remember reading this passage for the first time. It devastated me and I had to put the book down for awhile. Like much else in life, parenting is a struggle with yourself.):

Two children he had had, and he had not seen either clearly. But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.

Page 274:

I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

Page 279:

Once we were his again, he wanted something else. What is that if not a bad life? Luring others to you, then turning from them?

Page 286 (on the responsibility of perfection):

I remembered what Odysseus had said about her once. That she never went astray, never made an error. I had been jealous then. Now I thought: what a burden. What an ugly weight upon your back.

Page 294 (Telemachus is the main speaker here):

“That is how things go. You fix them, and they go awry, and then you fix them again.”

“You have a patient temper.”

“My father called it dullness. Shearing, cleaning out the hearths, pitting olives. He wanted to know how to do such things for curiosity’s sake, but he did not want to actually have to do them.”

It was true. Odysseus’ favorite task was the sort that only had to be performed once: raiding a town, defeating a monster, finding a way inside an impenetrable city.

Page 313:

But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.