Recounting the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, Ovid's Metamorphoses tell mythological tales that have inspired authors, arists, and poets. Many of the stories are taught to us at an early age, like the romance of Apollo and Daphne or the fate of Narcissus or the battles of the Trojan War. At the time the stories were written, Ovid drew connections from the most distant past all the way up to the present Rome under Caesar Augustus, but his exploration of love and the folly of the gods make the stories timeless.
Unlike other major epic poems, like The Iliad or The Aeneid, no single hero emerges as the focus of the story. Ovid jumps about so randomly from one story to the next that it really seems like the narrative is rambling with no particular destination in mind. Yet there is a sort of connecting thread – this idea of metamorphosis or change, usually through the machinations of love. Often the change is physical – women become trees or streams, or men are transformed into animals and wild beasts. The gods themselves are changeless, but as Ovid works through history he points out that man changes, and that nothing remains constant. An individual, family or nation may be powerful one day, but knocked down to insignificance the next. The only constant force in the world is, in fact, change.
The tales from Metamorphoses have a had a huge influence on Western culture. Pyramus and Thisbe, two lovers in a Romeo and Juliet-like story, appear in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Renaissance artists like Titian, Tintoretto and Bernini depict scenes from the stories in their work – as did many others as classical paintings became an increasingly popular genre. Many of the tales have been adapted, retold or parodied on stage and on screen. For these reasons, I think it's really important for readers to be familiar with the work, and try to read it at least once.
But it's not easy, I admit. Ovid's almost ADD in the way he jumps from one story to the next. Sometimes he'll tell a story within a story within a story – and keeping track of the characters and narrative threads is super confusing! I almost had to take notes at times. Some of the stories are fairly repetitious – how many accounts do we really need of women being turned into plants to escape rape by Jupiter or Apollo? But with patience and care, the stories entertain just as much as they did when Ovid first told them over two thousand years ago.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Cinder by Marissa Meyer
2011: The Titan's Curse (Percy Jackson #3) by Rick Riordan
2010: Halo: An Angel's Story by Christopher Knowles
2009: Guest Post: Fool by Christopher Moore