As a high school English teacher, I taught Homer’s Odyssey every year. I loved it. Like song lyrics, which they were, Homer’s lines were best when read aloud. Without fail, upon hearing the words read live in class by their teacher or a daring classmate, students’ faces dawned a glorious shock as they realized what Homer’s poem was really about.
It wasn’t the stuffy stuff of ivy towers and lecture halls. The Odyssey was packed with battles, sex, drunkenness, drug overdoses, lies, and vengeance. A bucking of teenage prohibitions in poetic form. And few characters popped off the pages as naughtily as Circe, a goddess whose penchant for turning lost sailors into pigs seemed to inspire both disbelief and admiration from youthful readers millenia later.
When I saw there was a spinoff of the ancient epic dedicated to Circe’s own story, I eagerly bought the book and dove in. Circe by Madeline Miller chronicles the goddess’s story: caught between the worlds of gods and mortals, a woman in a dreadfully patriarchal province, and too autonomous of heart and will for the politics and social norms of Greek deities.
Circe obeys the commands of no one, save her own will. “Timidity creates nothing,” she thinks while admiring Daedalus in Chapter 11. Her statement was as much about the fabled inventor as it was herself. Her islandish exile was inevitable.
Miller masterfully weaves together plots and storylines from a variety of classical materials both directly and indirectly related to Circe. But all that, for me, is secondary to the potency of the main character’s singular voice. Upon reading, I often felt myself glued to who the character was becoming–her choices, her rationale, her words–rather than primarily following a developing plot. (There was plenty of plot, too, but again for me it was all Circe’s spells and will and defiance.)
Summon the Data!
Literary data further colors my enjoyment of the text, particularly when it comes to pronouns. The word I is the second most frequently used word in the book with an even 5,200 uses. Such use aligns with other first-person books I have explored. Both The Great Gatsby (1,394) and The Hate U Give (3,195), for instance, feature the word I in the top five list of the books’ most used words.
But to really appreciate Circe’s character, you have to look not only at the frequency of the first-person pronoun, but its proximity to the nearest second- or third-person pronouns as well. That is, the real question is this: How frequently does the narrator’s references to self compare to the narrator’s references to others? That question reveals to readers how much of the narrator’s self-worth comes from within, rather than requiring the validating recognition of others without. This where Circe stands out as a character.
When comparing Circe to Gatsby and Hate, you can see further evidence of Circe’s indomitable sense of self. It’s subtle, but undeniable.
My, my, my
As I said above, it is not too surprising to find that the first-person pronoun I appears at the top of a list of frequently used words in book with a first-person narrator. But what one often sees next is that they are likely to soon thereafter encounter reference to a second- or third-person pronoun as well. In both Gatsby and Hate, for example, the third-person pronoun he is also used with great frequency.
But Circe is different.
I love that in Circe, not only does the title character’s first-person singular pronoun appear toward the top of most frequently used words, but so does its possessive form my (2,211). Circe’s sense of self, which comes across so compellingly in the pages of the book, finds fierce quantitative reinforcement.
As my eyes dash across the data above, my admiration for the goddess who refuses deference to titan and man alike only grows. If timidity creates nothing, then intimidation creates the cosmos.
Or, at least a world. An island, perhaps, and an immortal life befitting Circe’s own needs, for as long as she damn well wants.