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On Circe


Island of Scilla, and the cliffside from which its namesake snatches sailors from the decks.

As yet another hurricane approaches the Gulf Coast, I'm in the back stretch of Madeline Miller's excellent novel Circe, an electric literary exploration of the classic Greek stories surrounding the sorceress of that name. Written in the first person from the perspective of the eponymous witch-nymph, it elaborates on many of the mortal and immortal characters, including the naiad Scylla. Formerly cruel and beautiful, Scylla is a romantic rival of Circe, who responds to her ingressions by hexing her into a six-headed monster in an exercise of bitter and vengeful magic.

Scylla, the pages on whom form some of the best sea-monster prose I've encountered, takes up a station flanking a valuable shipping strait, whereon the other side is located a ship-consuming whirlpool. Sailors attempting to navigate must decide to either risk the entire vessel in the maelstrom or simply accept losing between six and twelve crewmembers, depending on their rowing prowess and the monster's appetite. Consideration of this malevolent notion extends back through time to the first pilots trying to keep their logs from smashing up on rocks. Who of us hasn't considered the baleful consequences of the impervious lee shore? For Scylla is the ultimate lee shore.

But the perspective of the book shifts the viewpoint away from the sailors as, indeed, it perhaps must be. We, after all, serve at the pleasure of Poseidon, and are merely essential gear for the fighting of the ship. It is always the ship that must come first in consideration, for its preservation means that of the maximum possible lives in nearly every situation short of abandoning her.

But the novel's perspective forces us to consider the monster as the object of first-person creation. Scylla is born of envy, of bitterness, and resentment. She is coiled high on the mountainside, her destructiveness known throughout the world, an undying reminder of Circe's failure: a failure of self control; a failure of emotions; a failure of consequences unexplored.

I have made myself these sorts of monsters. Have done, and do. I've seen truly competent skippers and captains finally facing down the one obstacle they had least prepared for and so most dreaded, finding their wherewithal and decisiveness wanting at the inopportune moment.

Sometimes we have to have some faith in our ability to correct mistakes we made the first time, or else risk struggling with them for what can feel like an eternity.

Great book; you'd be crazy not to get it.


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