Book - On Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Published today by Columbia University Press, Tony Cross read On Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Gareth David Williams ...

I enjoyed this book and I liked what it set out to do, but sometimes I felt that it was reaching a little too hard. It, occasionally, sounded like a trendy teacher trying to convince a class of bored children that the old book has something to say. Of course, the other problem with this approach is that it feels sometimes that it makes it seem that 'it's great stories beautifully told' isn't enough to justify a work of literature of value.

But I found Gareth Williams's approach refreshing. It also really made me want to go back and read Metamorphoses again with a slightly different mindset. One of the most interesting parts was Williams talking about some of the characters in the stories trying to upset Ovid's overall plan: Hecuba, Bacchus, Pythagoras, and Orpheus. It's interesting that some writers do talk about how characters seem to do things that they hadn't been expected to do and you do wonder if Ovid found himself in that position.

However, the obvious problem is we don't know what Ovid was really thinking. We do know that he finished off Metamorphoses after he'd been exiled for 'a poem and an error'. That error, which is never explained and seems likely lost to history, is the sort of thing that creates a lot of excitement for academics. Whatever it was, it was sufficiently bad for him to be exiled by Augustus and kept in exile when Tiberius was Emperor. This is another strength of Williams's book - the way it contextualises Ovid's choices and language with the political environment under Augustus.

One of the key problems with Metamorphoses for a 21st century audience is the sexual and physical violence. It is easy to forget that a lot of these stories are predicated on rape, often by the Gods. Something that Fiona Benson does a brilliant job of tackling in Vertigo and Ghost, her 2019 poetry collection. Williams tackles this problem head on and, I think, contextualises it without making light of it.

Overall, this is worth a read if you're thinking about reading Metamorphoses and you're not sure it is for you. Or if you're already reading it and you'd like more context. Frankly you should read Metamorphoses because there's an argument to be made that it might be one of the - if not the - most influential works in the Western canon. (If you believe in THE CANON.) But I'd say it was foundational. I think you could make a really good almost horror film out of the stories here. The sort of thing an Italian director would have done in the 70s.

An interesting read and a solid accompaniment to the poem itself, On Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Gareth David Williams is released on January 3rd. Or today. Depending on when you're reading this.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

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