by Madeline Miller

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Chapters 19–21 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1770

Chapter 19

As Circe wonders what it is that Athena fears about Telegonus, she prepares for Athena’s revenge. She spends many days poring over every plant and flower, studying their design and making blends of herbs and roots, in hopes of coming up with something that will aid her against the powerful goddess.

The idea of using something from the underworld—for “no gods, save those who govern souls, may set foot in the underworld”—eventually takes shape. She uses blood that Odysseus fetched from the house of death and, after devoting the day to experimenting with its properties, devises two spells. With no time to waste, she climbs to the highest peak on the island and casts her first spell of protection there. It acts as a dome over the island, creating a barrier of living death that should bar gods from entering. The second spell is cast just beneath it. This spell is tied to the island, and will make everything on the island come to the defense of Telegonus should Athena breach the first spell. These spells are a constant drain on Circe’s power and will require renewal every month, which she painstakingly and tirelessly undertakes while looking after her son. 

The spells do not, however, eliminate the natural dangers surrounding a mortal child. Telegonus has his mother’s strong will, as seen in his persistent restlessness and his resistance to remaining in one place for too long. He is not a peaceful child and frequently flies into destructive rages. The only thing that calms him is the view of the horizon and the sea. Throughout his childhood, Circe is torn between her desire to allow him his freedom and her need to keep him from harm’s way.

Telegonus grows into a young man and eventually asks about his father. Circe begins to tell him tales of Odysseus, though she sugar-coats them to protect his innocence. One day, Telegonus pleads for Circe to allow one ship to come in; the ship in question is in danger, and Circe reluctantly agrees to drop the spell “this once.” 

At the table, Telegonus surprises Circe with his firm display of authority when the men ask whose house they are in. The men are drawn to him; they honor his counsel and ask him to oversee the repair of their ship. Their brief visit sparks Telegonus’s interest in exploring the world beyond the island even more. Eventually, he asks to have a cave on the island all to himself, and Circe honors his privacy.

The day Telegonus turns sixteen is the day he shows Circe his boat, which he has been working on for months. He reveals that Hermes has been guiding him in his plan to sail to Ithaca to meet his father. Circe is horrified. She attempts to dissuade him, explaining that Hermes is a trickster and that Odysseus’s legitimate son, Telemachus, will not take his arrival kindly. She reminds him of Athena and the looming threat she still poses. Mother and son begin to argue. Even as their disagreement escalates, each remains obstinate. Telegonus wishes not to be trapped on the island all his life, even if it means taking risks, but Circe wishes to keep him alive, even if it means that he feels trapped.

Circe seeks counsel from her memories, and thinks back to the time she asked Odysseus what he did when he could not make Achilles and Agamemnon heed him. He simply replied: “That’s easy. You make a plan in which they do not.”

Chapter 20

The next morning, Circe approaches Telegonus and tells him he may go—under certain conditions. Telegonus is overjoyed. He has won his freedom, and he accepts all of Circe’s conditions. She casts a protection spell on his boat and instructs him to always remain on the boat while at sea. Upon landing on Ithaca, he must then go directly to his father and ask him to intercede with Athena. She asks him to show Penelope high praise and honor. Then, darkly, Circe warns her son to be vigilant and wary of Odysseus’s other son, Telemachus, for it is he who stands to lose the most with Telegonus’s sudden appearance.

Circe forces herself to appear happy for her Telegonus, even as she is overcome with worry. She knows that she has kept him innocent with her romanticized stories of struggle and war, and now he will see the outside world for himself.

Circe slips into the sea in the dead of night. She sinks to its dark, cold floor and calls for Trygon—a creature-god whose poisoned tail is known to be “the most potent in the universe”—to appear. The slightest touch of his venom would be instant death to a mortal and an eternity of agony for even a great god. Aeëtes used to say to Circe in awe of it, “Think of the weapon it would make.” 

Circe declares her desire to win the creature’s poison tail, even as she is filled to the brim with terror. Trygon, with its intimidating otherworldliness, appears before her, and Circe realizes that even her father pales in comparison to Trygon’s immense age and power. Trygon reveals that her brother Aeëtes had also come asking for the same but had failed. He gives Circe his conditions: in order to take his tail, one “must first submit to its poison,” and if she successfully wins the tail, she must return it to the ocean when she no longer has need of it. Circe agrees and moves to touch the poisonous tail.

In the end, Circe succeeds without the curse of eternal pain, for Trygon—seeing her unwavering willingness to touch the tail—decides to award her the tail without making her experience the venom: “You would have touched the poison. That is enough.” She then cuts off the tail, gives thanks, and rises back to the island, where she attaches the tail to a stick to make a spear for her son. In the morning, she instructs Telegonus to remember to keep it sheathed, for a mere scratch can bring death or eternal pain. Telegonus, bursting with gratitude and hope, sails off.

Chapter 21

Circe, alone again on Aiaia, contemplates how long she has lived on its shores. It has been over three hundred years since she first stepped foot on the island. Thinking of her own immortality, Circe dwells on the inescapable fact that her son—even if he escapes Athena’s attacks—will eventually fall to death, one way or another.

Not long after, Telegonus’s favorite wolf howls to signal the arrival of his ship. Circe is surprised to see him back so soon. There is pallor in his face as he comes ashore, and distraught, he tells the story of how Odysseus succumbed to the poison of the spear. Telegonus encountered Odysseus on the shore of Ithaca and instantly recognized him as his father. Odysseus, however, accused him of being a pirate and, enraged, demanded he drop his spear. Telegonus tried to flee, but Odysseus yanked him back, causing the sheath to fall off the spear. Attempting to seize the spear, Odysseus accidentally grazed his own cheek with the poisoned tip and died. 

Circe’s mind is racing. She recalls Athena’s desperation to get rid of Telegonus and realizes this is what she knew would happen; Athena only wished to save Odysseus, her favorite mortal. Circe grieves for Odysseus but also for her son’s terrible suffering—her “poor son, who had never harmed any man.” 

Telegonus reveals that he has brought with him Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and first-born son, Telemachus. He explains that they said they needed help, and he did not question them. Circe snaps into alertness, telling Telegonus that this was very unwise as Telemachus is bound to avenge his father’s death. Telegonus defends Telemachus, calling him “brother,” and threatens to go away with them if Circe will not allow them to stay on the island. Circe acquiesces, but she decides to keep a sharp watch on Penelope and Telemachus. For days afterward, her son’s actions are driven by his guilt, and he is especially attentive to Penelope’s needs as she grieves. Penelope, in turn, shows gratitude and graciousness, so Circe focuses her attention on Telemachus. To Circe, he seems difficult to read; he has a straightforwardness about him that she interprets as potential hostility.

One night, she confronts him directly, saying “I know you plan to kill my son.” Telemachus assures her that he does not intend to harm Telegonus, but Circe insists that a son must always avenge his father’s murder. Telemachus replies, “that only holds if he was murdered.” He then tells Circe that he witnessed his father’s death on the beach. Odysseus had grown hostile to outsiders in his old age, and Telemachus saw for himself that Odysseus did not technically die by Telegonus’s hand. Circe asks why he left Ithaca, since with Odysseus’s death, he is the rightful heir to the throne. Telemachus explains that he is no longer welcome on his island, for he did not avenge his father and did not weep at his funeral; instead, he only grieves to have “never met the father everyone told me I had.” 

Circe asks Telemachus to explain, and he speaks of his life while his father was away all those years—how he and Penelope had to fight off suitors and how, when Odysseus returned in the guise of a beggar, Odysseus killed them all off. He was going to kill all of their fathers, too, before Athena appeared to end the bloodshed. After finally making it home, Odysseus displayed fits of rage and increasing paranoia; he accused Telemachus of being cowardly and of trying to steal his throne. Odysseus’s behavior also strained Telemachus’s relationship with his mother, who remained devoted to Odysseus despite his faults. Telemachus rebuffs Circe’s attempt to comfort him, confessing that he is a coward who, on Odysseus’s orders, killed the slave girls who had lain with the suitors, fully aware that they had not done so by choice. His unflinching honesty earns Circe’s trust; and Circe now turns her attention to Penelope. Penelope and Circe are uneasy with one another, having both had a relationship with Odysseus. They converse about the nymph Calypso’s failed attempt to keep Odysseus on her island, and Circe shows Penelope her loom, so that she may make a black cloak to wear in mourning.

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