Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

This post contains spoilers. 

Circe by Madeline Miller was first published in 2018. This is an account of the Greek Goddess’s life from her own point of viewI found this book to be extraordinary. Though I have not read a lot of Twenty – First Century fiction, this was probably my favorite fictional work  that I have read that has been published this century. It is a book that works on many levels.

Though much of the story is drawn from Homer’s Odyssey, many other Greek and Roman mythological sources are drawn into the story including Ovid’s Metamorphosis as well as what is known about the lost Ancient Greek epic poem The Telegony. One of many strengths to this work  is the way that Miller has managed to weave these sources together seamlessly.

Circe’s story is told in the first person. The book picks up in her youngest days. She is the daughter of Helios the Sun God. The young Goddess is not very powerful and is surrounded by Gods and Goddesses who show little humanity or ethics and who often bully or take advantage of her.  Early on she encounters and aids Prometheus who is being persecuted and tortured by the other deities for aiding humanity.  Unlike most of the other gods, Prometheus possesses principles. His aid to humanity  seems to be symbolic of humanism which is a theme throughout the book.  This encounter has an impression upon her that resounds throughout her life. 

As time passes Circe and her siblings discover a new power that has been previously unavailable to the Gods. This is the power of witchcraft and involves the use of herbs and the casting of spells as a way to exert power. Circe is a mostly sympathetic character but she shows serious imperfections. At her worst moment she uses her newfound power to turn her romantic rival Scylla into a monster. Most of her fellow deities have no conscious, but Circe does. Thus, this act haunts her for the remainder of her life.  Though her immoral fellow gods are not much bothered by Scylla’s fate, the discovery of witchcraft causes a rift in the balance of power between the gods. When Helios and Zeus strike a deal to keep the peace, Circe is sent into exile to the island of Aiaia. 

Over the years Circe encounters many famous Gods, mythological creatures and mortals including Hermes, Athena, Medea, Daedalus, Jason, the Minotaur and others. Her infamous habit of turning ship’s crews into pigs is shown to be a defensive strategy to protect herself against gang rape. Eventually Odysseus shows up. He appears to be sensitive and thoughtful person who is also very imperfect and has also committed many wrongs. He and Circe begin an affair. After a year he departs. A pregnant Circe eventually gives birth to Telegonus. The book covers Telegonus’s youth and adolescence. Circe struggles to use her powers to protect him against a murderous Athena. Eventually he sets off for Ithaca to find his father Odysseus. 

At Ithaca Telegonus finds an Odysseus who is cruel and is growing paranoid. Odysseus is killed when he attacks Telegonus. Odysseus’s wife Paleopole and his son Telemachus are more or less relived by the hero’s death and flee with Telegonus back to Circe on Aiaia. There, the four grow close as they encounter further challenges. 

There is so much going on in this book. First, it is a great character study. The portrait of Circe is so well drawn. She begins the story as an unassertive and vulnerable person. Her parents, siblings and early romantic interests often belittle and take advantage of her. She slowly learns to assert herself. The entire book, from the first pages to the last is a kind of an arc where Circe develops her self - worth in the face of narcissists who seek to diminish her. The story has a lot of feminist themes as it presents a girl and later a woman who slowly finds liberation as she faces people and society who try to disregard and exploit her. I found this aspect of the book realistic and I thought that Circe’s experience and personality evolution applicable to both  women and men of a certain personality type.  As noted above, along the way Circe does not always behave with perfect morality. Despite this, she does develop something of her own ethical code as the story goes on and mostly behaves sympathetically. Miller pits a lot of nuance into her. There are other great characters including Telegonus. 

The story is also filled with keen observations about life and the human condition. Like all deities, Circe is immortal. The narrative frequently contrasts this with the mortality of humans.

At one point Circe is thinking about her mortal son,

Even if Telegonus survived Athena, even if he made it all the way to Ithaca and back, still I would lose him. To shipwreck or to sickness, to raids or wars. The best that I could hope for would be to watch his body fail, limb by limb. To see his shoulders droop, his legs tremble, his belly sink into itself. And at the last, I would have to stand over his white-haired corpse and watch it fed to the flames. The hills and trees before me, the worms and lions, stones and tender buds, Daedalus’ loom, all wavered as if they were a fraying dream. Beneath them was the place I truly dwelt, a cold eternity of endless grief.

At another stage she observes, 

It was their fate… 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.

In the above quotations death is portrayed as  dark event and a tragedy. This theme is developed throughout the book. It is ultimately worked out as it becomes apparent that it is death that gives people humanity and that ironically, mortality is a strength. Death is interwoven with the humanistic themes very elegantly.  

Like an epic poem, there are also observations upon parents and children, love of various kinds, courage and more.

The book is written in prose full of metaphors in the style of epic poetry. In this way and in others Miller’s writing is poetic. The words also flow very well. This all adds up to writing that is artistic and excellent.

I would throw one yellow flag out to readers. Though I think this book can work on some levels as a standalone story, I would recommend that one be familiar with the Odyssey and maybe a little bit of mythology surrounding Circe from other sources before reading this. This is less of a retelling of these stories as  it is more like Miller has filled in a lot of blanks from other stories. The author has combined ancient themes with modern ones. The effect is very impressive. 

I loved this book. It contains outstanding story, characters, themes and prose. It weaves together timeless elements with Miller’s interpretation. It is a marvelous edition to established mythology. I highly recommend this book. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Harry Potter Series - A Wrap-up

 This post contains spoilers. 

Those who have been reading this blog over the past several months know that I have been reading through the Harry Potter series. I have finally finished. I do not often join in on what is popular, and the Harry Potter series is nothing if not popular, but this time I am glad that I did. I enjoyed the books and I got a lot out of them. 

I thought that all of the books were good. My favorite was the first, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. That book created the wizarding world that was the basis of the entire series. For this reason and others, it was unsurpassed in originality. I also thought that this first entry held a certain level of charm that was not achieved in the later books.  I felt that subsequent books fell into a pattern that, at times, became a little wearisome. With that, this repetitiveness did not prevent me from enjoying these books. Starting with book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, all-out war breaks out between the established wizarding world and the evil Lord Voldemort and his followers. I found that this conflict helped to break the uniformity that was settling into the series. Thus, after the first book, I thought that the last three books were stronger than the earlier ones. 

This very popular book series had certain trends and themes that ran throughout. In this wrap up post, I would like to write a few words about some of these trends that I found interesting. I wrapped up several reoccurring themes in my various posts on individual books. For instance, I talked about the entire character arc of Severus Snape in my post on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. Here, I will try to touch upon some other themes. 

There is something ironic about how the magic was portrayed in this series. The universe that Rowling created is based upon magic. It is populated by witches, wizards and all sorts of magical creatures. Yet, for all this magic, there is almost something scientific and rational about the world that the author has fashioned. Magic is studied and broken down into sub-subjects at Hogwarts. It is sometimes experimented with.  It is applied systematically. Precise instructions are laid out for particular spells. Magic is not random or chaotic in Rowling’s universe.  Instead, magic is portrayed within these pages based upon physical laws that, while imaginary, seem to be very ordered. It seems that if one applied the scientific method to them, these laws could be discovered and shown to be just another part of the way in which the world works. In fact, that is exactly what some of the characters and institutions in the series do.

These books also highlight intelligence. Harry and his friends are smart. Though Hermione is the most intelligent, the boys are also intuitive and clever. Readers of this series might be surprised that I include Ron. Harry’s closest male friend is often portrayed in a comical and dopey way. However, there is still an inner intelligence that shines through with Ron.  Unlike some bright young people in popular culture, these characters are not portrayed as snarky or smart alecks. They are sometimes smarter than the adults around them, but they do not act like they are aware of it. 

Another reoccurring theme that I have already written about in my individual posts on the books is that Rowling’s wizarding world seems to be a microcosm and commentary on the real world. The magical government, known as the Ministry of Magic, is often portrayed as corrupt, unjust and inefficient. Sometimes, good people are persecuted and bad people are rewarded. At times, draconian and unfair laws are passed and enforced. Yet, the wizarding world is at its root a free society that acts like a democracy. The wizarding world, just like the real world, has its share of immoral and abusive people. Yet despite these flaws, the established wizarding world is worth fighting for. The forces that seek to destroy it are barbarous. I covered all this in my post on Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.  An interesting post script to all this occurs in the epilogue of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows. It is nineteen years after the major events of the book. Hermione is now Minister of Magic and Harry is running the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Presumably, they are doing a better job than some of their predecessors. Like the real world, the system is not perfect and could stand reform, but the enemies of civilization are worse. Destroying everything is not the answer. Ethical and competent people will not eliminate problems all together, but that might improve things. 

As I have written in my various posts, the plight of the lonely young person trying understand themselves, the idea of “specialness” and bullying are all intertwined and are major themes of the books. Bullying and specialness act as a kind of counterpoint to each other throughout the series.  Now that I am finished, revisiting these trends is in order. In my post on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I wrote about the fact that Harry had been exposed to bullying, and abuse by the Dursleys played into the plot. He later found out that he was special in that he had magical abilities, and that he held a somewhat legendary status in the magical world.   I speculated that this was a sentiment that was relatable to many and that a lot of people share a feeling that they are special and unique but are surrounded by those who cannot understand their distinctiveness. It turned out that throughout the series, specialness and bullying kept popping up. Every summer, Harry returned to the Dursleys, who continued to try to bully him.  As he got older and became more confident, he slowly began to fight back more and more.  Malicious teachers and students continued to try to bully and attack Harry and his friends. Tom Riddle, later to become the evil Lord Voldemort, was in many ways the ultimate bully. In an ironic twist, while he was exposed to all this, Harry’s special status was simultaneously emphasized. When Harry was an infant he had survived a murderous attack by Voldemort that backfired, and that actually left the evil lord in a near death condition. This endowed Harry with a fabled place in the wizarding world. Throughout the books, Harry never lets this fame go to his head. I can imagine a commenter being critical of Rowling, as her young protagonist never abused or even used to his advantage his fame and accolades. Some might say that this is unrealistic and that Harry was portrayed as too good. However, I think that Harry’s humility is realistic. Some people are naturally humble even when young.  Harry is this kind of person. He is believably portrayed as such. 

Rowling explores Harry’s specialness in other permutations. Some of his peers and teachers react with a combination of jealousy and scorn to Harry’s reputation. Professor Snape as well as the malicious Draco Malfoy act as if Harry is showing arrogance, despite the fact that he shows no such thing. They try to use Harry’s special reputation against him and leverage it in their attempts to bully him. Once again, I think that many readers relate to being bullied, or at least misunderstood, for possessing distinctive traits. 

Ron Weasley’s reaction to Harry’s fame is the most interesting of all to me. Ron is Harry’s great friend. There are times, however, that he feels that he is living in the shadow of Harry’s popularity. Ron’s own mother lavishes praise on Harry, perhaps leading to some tension.  Toward the end of the series, a relationship develops between Ron and Hermione and there is the barest hint that there might be some stress between Ron and Harry here. Supposedly, there was much more to this potential love triangle in early drafts of the novels, but Rowling chose to remove much of it from her final drafts. In the versions of the books that we have, Ron keeps any resentment that he has in abeyance most of the time, but it occasionally comes out, leading to minor conflicts between himself and Harry.  It all comes to a climax in the last book as Voldemort attempts to take advantage of these underlying feelings to turn Ron against Harry. At this point in the story, Harry and Hermione had been traveling together and Ron has just rejoined them. Through a magical object, a piece of Voldemort’s spirit attempts to turn Ron, 

‘I have seen your dreams, Ronald Weasley, and I have seen your fears. All you desire is possible, but all that you dread is also possible ...’ 

‘Least loved, always, by the mother who craved a daughter ... least loved, now, by the girl who prefers your friend ... second best, always, eternally overshadowed ...’ 

Why return? We were better without you, happier without you, glad of your absence ... we laughed at your stupidity, your cowardice, your presumption –’ 
Who could look at you, who would ever look at you, beside Harry Potter? What have you ever done, compared with the Chosen One? What are you, compared with the Boy Who Lived?’ 

Your mother confessed,’ sneered Riddle-Harry, while Riddle- Hermione jeered, ‘that she would have preferred me as a son, would be glad to exchange ...’ 
‘Who wouldn’t prefer him, what woman would take you? You are nothing, nothing, nothing to him, 

After all this, Ron overcomes his jealousy and insecurity and strikes out at Voldemort. However, in the above examples, Rowling successfully explores how specialness can lead to jealousy and resentment.  I find that these points and counterpoint about specialness and bullying work very well together throughout the series.

My reading of the Harry Potter Series is complete. I found the series to be well worth it. As noted above, I had a good time reading these books. I have read a fair amount of fantasy over the years and I feel that these books stand up well to even the great books of the past. Though late to the party, I am glad that I eventually attended.  

My post on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stoneis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secretsis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanis here

My post on Harry Potter and The Gobletof Fire is here

My post on Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix is here

My post on Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Princeis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollowsis here

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling is the seventh and final book in the series.  I found it to be a fitting end to the Harry Potter saga. This entry is an exciting climax to the story. Rowling continues to weave a strong and exciting plot and entertaining characters into some interesting themes. It all wraps up very nicely. 

This book breaks the plot pattern that was established in previous entries. In the earlier books we had the inevitable summer adventures of Harry and his friends, followed by a trip to Hogwarts followed by the day to day occurrences at the magical school. Instead, in the early pages of this book, the evil Lord Voldemort has taken over the Ministry of Magic and most of the power in the wizarding world. Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, do not go to back school. Instead, they set off on a quest-like mission to destroy Voldemort’s power by finding and destroying dark magical objects know as Horcruxes. The trio travel the forests and towns of England, encountering friends and enemies along the way, as they fight evil wizards and creatures.

The last fifth of the book involves both Harry and his allies fighting Voldemort and his Death Eaters at Hogwarts itself in a final, spectacular and violent magical battle. The author puts all sorts of interesting elements into the finale. Rowling also shows that she is indeed an author who is a cut above the average fantasy writer.

 A tendency that has been building up throughout the series is that the magical violence and combat is very real and that it involves death, maiming and real brutality.  As mentioned above, Rowling’s attention to detail is impressive.  For instance, even brave characters often experience realistic fear before battle. They are often depicted as trembling. They are often traumatized after magical combat. 

Well established characters die or are physically scarred for life. Ron Weasley’s large family has been close to Harry throughout the books. They all are devastated as one son, Fred, a popular character, is killed in the midst of the Battle of Hogwarts. Other allies, including the married couple Tonks and Lupin, are also killed in the battle. 

At one point, Harry, Hermione and Ron survey the physical and emotional devastation and casualties,

Ron led the way to the Great Hall. Harry stopped in the doorway. The house tables were gone and the room was crowded. The survivors stood in groups, their arms around each other’s necks. The injured were being treated up on the raised platform by Madam Pomfrey and a group of helpers. Firenze was amongst the injured; his flank poured blood and he shook where he lay, unable to stand. 

The dead lay in a row in the middle of the hall. Harry could not see Fred’s body, because his family surrounded him. George was kneeling at his head; Mrs Weasley was lying across Fred’s chest, her body shaking, Mr Weasley stroking her hair while tears cascaded down his cheeks…. 

Harry had a clear view of the bodies lying next to Fred: Remus and Tonks, pale and still and peaceful-looking, apparently asleep beneath the dark, enchanted ceiling. 
The Great Hall seemed to fly away, become smaller, shrink, as Harry reeled backwards from the doorway. He could not draw breath. He could not bear to look at any of the other bodies, to see who else had died for him. He could not bear to join the Weasleys, could not look into their eyes…

He turned away and ran up the marble staircase. Lupin, Tonks ... he yearned not to feel ... he wished he could rip out his heart, his innards, everything that was screaming inside him. 

Rowling has managed to weave together exciting magical battle passages with effective descriptions of the aftermath of violence. Other fantasy writers, such as J.R.R.  Tolkien, have done this before, but Rowling’s technique seems different. I find it effective and believable. 

The character of Severus Snape is also brought to an interesting conclusion here. Throughout the series, the Hogwarts teacher has bullied and even verbally abused Harry. He was known to be a former servant of Voldemort who had switched sides and was allied to Dumbledore in the fight against Voldemort. In the previous book, Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince, Snape seemed to switch sides again and join Voldemort. In this book it is revealed that he has stayed loyal to the anti-Voldemort cause. His entire story is also revealed to Harry. He had grown up with Harry’s mother Lilly. Years ago, the two attended Hogwarts together. As Snape was drawn to the side of the growing power of Voldemort, Lilly and he became estranged despite the fact that Snape was in love with her. Lilly eventually marries Harry’s father James, who Snape hated. Though Snape tried to prevent it, Voldemort murdered Lilly along with James. At that point, Snape began working with Dumbledore against Voldemort to honor Lilly’s memory. He also pledged to protect Harry as he grew up. Despite the fact that he never waivered in his fight against Dumbledore and that he showed great bravery, Snape stayed an angry bitter bully who still did not like Harry. He still harbored a rancorous resentment aimed at Harry’s deceased father James. All of this adds up to him being a complex character. He was on the side of virtue while being a thoroughly dislikeable person.  His motivation for opposing Voldemort was almost entirely motivated for his love of the deceased Lilly and not inspired by other altruistic reasons. 

I quibble that the book is a little too long. The middle part seems to meander. I think that Rowling could have used a more effective editor.

I would not read this book without reading what has happened before. It does not work as a standalone. This series works best as a whole. 

This book is an excellent conclusion to the series. It ties the plot, character and themes that Rowling had previously developed to great effect. This is a satisfying wrap up of the series. My favorite book of the bunch was the first, this one being my second or third.  In the end, I am glad that I finally gave this series a go.