Translated by A.S. Kline, 1363 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson
t's easy to understand how college students could get traumatized by this book.
Today, we might change into a hawk or a dove, but only metaphorically. The characters in this book literally change into newts, trees, spiders, statues, snakes, werewolves, bears, rocks, bodies of water, woodpeckers, crows, cows, bulls, and astrophysical phenomena. They get stuck in the Underworld. They get stabbed, shot with arrows, decapitated, eaten, and drowned. They get raped. If your idea of being traumatized is when your best friend refuses to loan you a Kleenex, this story is going to be pret-ty scary.
Book 1 Jupiter drowns the Earth. Humans grow back from fungi. Io gets changed into a cow; is surprised when she tries to talk but can only moo. Communicates by drawing out letters with her hoof. Father disappointed; had arranged her marriage, now must mate her with some animal from the herd.
Book 2 The Sun lets his teenage son drive his chariot across the sky, with predictable results. Jupiter rapes Callisto.
Book 3 Cadmus looks for his sister Europa, now a cow; kills snake.
Book 4 Cadmus gets changed into a snake; wife surprised, becomes snake too. Two ladies change into bats; others into birds. Many problems with snakes.
Book 5 Perseus strikes back. Quentin Tarantinoism ensues. Proserpine gets raped, abducted to underworld, forced to commute, creates winter.
Book 6 Many textiles. It is a good day to dye. Also a good day for blood, rape, revenge, and cannibalism. Survivors change into birds and fly away.
Book 7 Jason vs. Medea; Jason's dad rejuvenated by a witch, who flies away on a dragon.
Book 7 Phocus admires Cephalus's spear, wants to buy one; forced to listen to a long sad story about Cephalus's wife first; discovers Cephalus is really stupid.
Book 8 Scylla falls in love with an enemy general; offers her father's purple hair, but gets rejected. Daedalus provides inadequate preflight instruction to his son Icarus. A girl hunts a wild pig; many men, dogs killed.
Book 9 Hercules gets in a fight, loses, becomes constellation. Girl writes things better left unsaid, changes into fountain.
Book 10 Orpheus visits the underworld to retrieve wife, fails, turns gay. Venus plays hard to get, stops for an apple, turns into lion.
Book 11 Orpheus gets murdered; gods not happy, turn killers into trees. Midas has problems eating. Peleus ties up Thetus.
Book 12 Caenis gets raped, gets god-induced gender reassignment. Centaurs invited to a wedding. Fight breaks out; eyeballs, blood, brains everywhere. Caenis is tough to kill; centaurs embarrassed, throw pine trees at him.
Book 13 Ajax and Ulysses get through almost a whole chapter without killing anybody. Then Ajax stabs himself to death to prove how tough he is.
Book 14 Macareus drinks the wrong thing and is turned into an animal with a snout and hooves; gets better. Picus, turned into a woodpecker, not so lucky.
Book 15 Pythagoras: vegetarianism & reincarnation. Moral of story: nothing dies, it only changes.
The general theme is love: boy meets girl, boy chases girl, girl changes into a cow, father searches for girl, cow changes back into girl, girl gets chained to a rock, boy gets killed, boy changes into a bird. Just your typical romantic story crossed with science fiction.
The Greeks (and Romans) used heroic narratives like this to make sense of the world and to share their insights into human nature, just as they imagined animal shapes in the constellations to make them easier to identify. Nature, they're probably saying, has a reason for what it does, but is also vengeful, arbitrary, and cruel.
There are too many characters for this story to make a coherent narrative. It's hard to discern an overall plot: characters—over 200 of them—appear out of nowhere and often have several different names.
But some parts of this book are hilariously funny. I had always assumed Metamorphoses was some tedious recitation of dull facts. I didn't expect it to be the funniest and wittiest book I ever read.
The original is written in verse form, in Latin. This translated prose version, despite its 1300 pages, is easier to read, but the price is that a great deal of Ovid's beauty is lost. The verse translations, like that of A. D. Melville, retain more of Ovid's literary charm, but many modern people would find a verse style archaic and stilted.
Example: (1. 160-194)
Across the height of heaven there runs a road,
Clear when the night is bare, the Milky Way,
Famed for its sheen of white. Along this way
Come the immortals to the royal halls
Of the great Thunderer; on either hand
The mansions of the aristocracy
Are thronged, their doors flung wide.
There is a high track, seen when the sky is clear, called the Milky Way, and known for its brightness. This way the gods pass to the palaces and halls of the mighty Thunderer. To right and left are the houses of the greater gods, doors open and crowded.
What is the meaning of Metamorphoses? Is it a satire of Greek and Roman mythology, or is it, as Ovid says in Book 15, an argument for the views of Pythagoras (and maybe also Pythagoras's contemporary Heraclitus) on constant change, metempsychosis and the sanctity of life? Or is it, as some suggest, a veiled suggestion that Rome itself will eventually metamorphose and be destroyed as Troy was? Or is it just pure entertainment? I leave that to the experts. Whatever its purpose, it's engagingly and beautifully written—a book that must be read at least once, even if you have to turn the pages with your hooves.
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