Ovid never published any prose, and the Metamorphoses (the transformations) is his only thoroughly narrative work; in the telling of its manifold but continuous stories, however, the poem exemplifies a range of narrative techniques which has had inestimable influence on the history of short fiction.
The verse form of the poem (dactylic hexameter), the invocation to the gods, and the opening statement of theme all indicate from the outset that this is Ovid’s epic:My spirit moves me to tell of forms changed into new bodies. Gods, since you made these changes, favor my attempt and from the first beginning of the world to my own time spin out an uninterrupted song.
The ambitious scope of the project is reflected in its sheer size alone; with fifteen books of about eight hundred lines each, the Metamorphoses is longer than either the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.) or Paradise Lost (1667). It has more in common with the Greek poet Hesiod than with the Homeric tradition of epic from which Vergil and John Milton drew inspiration, and it is odd enough in its subject and particularly in its tone that some commentators have called it an antiepic.
The poem appears to tell of the world’s progress from an original chaos of matter to Creation and the Golden Age, then of a decline through four ages to the Flood; from there, it recounts the vicissitudes in the life of humans and gods, first in a mythological epoch and then in the historical period from the founding of Troy to the reign of Augustus Caesar. Underlying the narrative is a sense of the continuous war between order and disorder, cosmos and chaos, integrity (in every sense of the word) and disintegration. Thus, the poem that begins with the transformation of shapeless chaos into an ordered but unstable universe climaxes with Augustus’s imposition of order on Rome’s political chaos after the death of Julius Caesar. It ends with the anticipated death and metamorphosis of its own author:And now my work is done, which neither Jove’s wrath nor fire nor sword nor gnawing tooth of time can destroy. Let that day which has power over nothing but this body come when it will and end my uncertain span of years. Yet the best of me will be borne up, everlasting, above the lofty stars, and my name will be imperishable. Wherever Roman power extends over conquered lands I shall be read aloud by the people; famous through all ages, if there be any truth to the poets’ presentiments, I shall live.
The Metamorphoses, however, is not in any rigorous sense a philosophical poem (such as Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, first century b.c.e.) or a politico-religious poem (such as the Aeneid). It is secular and above all literary, and the issues that most engage its author are primarily artistic ones. Indeed, to say that Ovid weaves stories from Greek and Latin mythology into an unbroken narrative of transformations is to characterize the three major aesthetic problems that the poet sets for himself; it is his resourceful solutions to these problems that have been of most value to subsequent writers of fiction.
First, it is clear that Ovid was not, like William Blake or J. R. R. Tolkien, trying to devise a mythology; but while his stories are traditional, it would be a mistake to conceive him as compiling a handbook like Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (1855). Although it is all too often used like a handbook or reference work, the Metamorphoses is a literary work of great originality and personality, a sophisticated and even skeptical handling of myth by a characteristic narrative voice. Although Ovid occasionally made a point of telling a little-known story (“Pyramus and Thisbe” is presented in this way, although thanks to Ovid and one of his most assiduous readers, it is very familiar to the modern audience), he expected his audience on the whole to know the stories he told and so to be most interested in how he transformed the old familiar songs in the voice, perspective, and detail of his particular telling. This intention is certainly apparent in the poet’s choosing to end with the apotheosis of himself, or, more strictly speaking, of his narrative voice. (The closest modern equivalents to Ovid’s interplay between a tale and its narration would be Thomas Mann’s in Joseph and His Brothers, 1933-1943, or John Barth’s in Chimera, 1972.)
When, for example, Ovid came to tell the story of Medea (book 7: lines 1-424), he was addressing an audience familiar with Euripides’ tragedy, and perhaps also with his own lost tragedy, Medea. There may be resemblances between Ovid’s own two versions; the story of Daedalus in Metamorphoses (8:152-235) reuses a number of lines from the poet’s earlier account of the same material in Ars Amatoria (2:21-96). In any case, these circumstances afford a poet considerable freedom, because in a sense he can take the plot for granted. The story, therefore, begins with the major events relegated to a subordinate clause:While the Argonauts were approaching King Aeetes and asking for the Golden Fleece, and while the King was imposing his monstrous conditions, his daughter was seized by an overpowering passion.
This is immediately followed by a long interior monologue by Medea—an almost operatic struggle with her passion that, like an overture, firmly fixes the character as the center of attention in this version of the story. She finally yields to her love and provides Jason with the herbs and spells he will need to survive the trials imposed by the king. Ovid dwells on one of these, the sowing of the serpent’s teeth to produce an army that must be defeated, perhaps because the motif recalls the second “creation” after the Flood when Deucalion and Pyrrha sow stones to repopulate the world. With the help of Medea’s magic, the dragon that guards the Fleece is entranced and Jason carries off both the prize and the princess to Thessaly. Once there, Medea uses her powers to rejuvenate Jason’s father Aeson in an elaborately detailed ritual. She then exacts vengeance from Aeson’s usurping brother Pelias by offering to restore his youth by the same magic. She pretends to repeat the ceremony but instead tricks Pelias’s daughters into butchering their father. She escapes in her dragon chariot to Corinth, where the best-known part of her story, the substance of Euripides’ tragedy, is passed over in a single sentence: “But after the new wife had been set afire by Colchian poisons and the two seas had seen the king’s house burning, an impious sword was drenched in the blood of her sons and, having wickedly avenged herself, the mother fled Jason’s weapons.” This escape is to Athens, where an unsuccessful attempt to poison Theseus initiates the transition to another tale.
In “Medea” as elsewhere, Ovid successfully shifts the reader’s attention from the inherited tale to its present telling. Medea’s opening monologue, her prayer to Hecate (the model for Prospero’s speech abjuring magic in The Tempest, 1611), and vivid descriptions of her rituals take up close to half of the entire narrative. Ovid made the tale his own by the resulting emphasis on the psychological dimension of her love and jealousy, and on the rare power of the witch, unlike most mortals, to cause transformations rather than to suffer them.
The second challenge Ovid sets for himself is that of maintaining “uninterrupted song.” This creates, above all, an opportunity to demonstrate virtuosity in the art of transition, and the display begins almost at once. In book 1, for example, when the story moves from the primeval to the mythological epoch, the spot is marked with a complex and ornate transition. The world has been progressively formed out of chaos, culminating in upright humans; but then a decline leads to the Flood, described as a kind of second chaos, with fish in the trees and everything out of place. New creations emerge from the discordant harmony of heat and moisture in the fertile mud, one of which is the monstrous Python, which the archer Apollo has to kill with thousands of arrows. To commemorate his triumph, the god established the Pythian games, in which the winning athletes were crowned with oak leaves. Ovid’s audience, however, knew that the Pythian victors were in fact crowned with laurel, so the transition continues: “There was not yet any laurel (laurus), so any tree served to provide the garland that crowned the flowing locks of Phoebus. His first love was Daphne, daughter of Peneus the river god. This came about not by sheer chance, but through the wrath of Cupid.”
“Python” and “Daphne”
There are actually three facets to this transition from “Python” to “Daphne.” One is naïvely narrative: The exploits of the young god are seen first in war, then in love. A second transition is via the name Daphne, which a Roman literary audience would recognize as Greek for “laurel,” and the absence of laurel in the preceding story. (Transition by way of some missing element is frequent in the Metamorphoses; in fact, the story of Daphne also ends with one, leading to the story of Io: When the other rivers come to console Daphne’s father, one is missing because he is worried about the disappearance of his own daughter.) What actually causes Apollo’s infatuation, however, is his condescending to Cupid as a direct result of his victory over the monster. Apollo taunts Cupid that a bow is a weapon for a warrior, not a boy; but Cupid replies, “Your bow strikes everything, but mine will strike you,” and promptly shoots Apollo with a love dart that sends him chasing the nymph.
Although the narrative of the...
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