If you could only bring one book with you to a desert island, which book would you choose?
Ovid’s full name was Publius Ovidius Naso, but like a lot of contemporary rockstars, he preferred to go by one name only. He was a contemporary of Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid, one of the seminal works of Roman literature. He also lived during the time of Augustus, the heir to Julius Caesar and the first Roman Emperor. At the height of his literary success, Ovid was banished to the Black Sea for reasons unknown – he cryptically cited the causes as “carmen et error”—“a poem and a mistake.” He was a fascinating, mysterious character who definitely deserved at least a cameo in HBO’s Rome.
Ovid’s most famous work, The Metamorphoses, is likewise overlooked. It is a sprawling, chaotic masterpiece, the kind I’ve always been inclined towards. I think it’s because the humanity of the author shows through the cracks in ways that seldom happen with more perfect texts. I admire a poem like Paradise Lost, and was delighted to spend a year of my undergrad program studying it, from its soaring invocation (“To justify the ways of God to man”) to its cinematic conclusion (“They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way”). But that poem’s ingenious, almost mathematical structure feels like its all God and no Man. Milton erased himself from the equation, like a magician who disappears before the act even begins. After university, Paradise Lost became Interest Lost, and I’ve never looked back.
If epic poetry is not your cup of tea, I’ll use films to make my point. There’s no disputing that The Godfather is a more successful film than Apocalypse Now, or that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a greater achievement than, say, Blade Runner. But you won’t find me turning up to the midnight screening of either of the former films, whereas the latter have demanded repeated viewings through the years. For a long time, I considered Apocalypse Now my favourite film, despite having no special interest in the Vietnam War, Joseph Conrad, or Richard Wagner. I can explore the reasons more fully some other time, but suffice to say, what I found most fascinating were what haters would consider flaws.
Metamorphoses is flawed. It begins like a pagan version of Genesis, all sweeping cosmic gestures and big-picture age-hopping, but as soon as Ovid gets bored of a scope which doesn’t afford much room for human beings, he zooms in, relating individual myths of wildly differing tones and content. Some stories only get a handful of lines before his narrative voice hauls the reader elsewhere; others expand to become mini-epics unto themselves, revealing which myths inspired the author more. The weird transitions and meandering imagery conjure up a poet rolling along with his muse, heedless of anything except the line immediately in front of him.
All the greatest hits of Greco-Roman mythology are represented, but not always in versions you’d recognize. From a very young age, I was a fan of Greek myths, and in trying to crack Robert Graves’s studies of mythological narrative, I understood that each story had multiple versions (which explained why the Kraken looked like a squid in Daulaires’ picture book, but resembled a four-armed fish-man in Clash of the Titans)—but even so, Ovid’s mythography is way out there. That’s because he wasn’t writing for posterity or scholarship; he was writing for himself.
In the final book (there are 15), Ovid gets political, bringing his meandering narrative home to Rome in order to deify the recently deceased Julius Caesar. Perhaps this was done to appease his patron, Augustus, or maybe he decided his epic needed a jot of immediacy. Like Shakespeare shoe-horning the latest theatrical gossip into Act Two of Hamlet, Ovid must have known he was diluting the work’s universality—despite his boast in the epilogue, that “in [his] better part” (ie. his poem) he “shall be borne immortal, far above the stars on high.” But are great authors even supposed to be concerned with such matters? The more a poet worries about whether or not his poem will “live forever,” the less they’re focused on the poem.
Just as he’s transparent about the audience for his poem, Ovid is up-front about its purpose—to an extent. Metamorphoses begins: “My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed / to bodies new and strange!” The theme of transformation is one of the things I love most about the epic, but I also love the fact that, as his great work unfolds, Ovid becomes less and less concerned with that theme. At first, it must have been a thrill for the poet to describe how a woman becomes a tree, or how a man becomes a stag, and so on. But, while those evocative descriptions linger, they increasingly give way to a grander theme. By the time he gets to Pyramus and Thisbe, the myth which Shakespeare famously spoofed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s clear that Ovid doesn’t love transformation so much as he loves love. And what more sublime and fundamentally human form of metamorphosis is there, really?
In his introduction to Tales From Ovid, a free-form adaptation of some choicer bits of Metamorphosis, Ted Hughes writes that Ovid created Metamorphoses at a “unique moment in history—the moment of the birth of Christ within the Roman Empire.” The mythology, his grandiloquent template for exploring human passion, was already being debunked—“the obsolete paraphernalia of the old official religion…lying in heaps, like old masks in the lumber room of a theatre, and the new ones had not yet arrived.” I believe this lends Metamorphoses an incredible power, as the author was discovering that divinity itself is a human narrative invention. I also think we’re living through a similar sea-change, when ancient faiths are breaking down—not only Christianity, but also the parallel conviction that mankind is master of his planet—and new ideas are being born. I think we can learn a lot from Metamorphoses.
What is your favourite myth? What do you think it says about human behaviour or human nature?