BMCR 2001.11.23

Narrative Dynamics in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Classica Monacensia, Bd. 20)

Wheeler, Stephen Michael, 1962-, Narrative dynamics in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Classica Monacensia, Bd. 20. Tübingen: Narr, 2000. viii, 174 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 3823348795 DM 78,00.

Stephen Wheeler’s Narrative Dynamics is distinctly different from, though not without debt to, the works of Galinsky, Solodow, Hinds, Myers, and Tissol. Narrative Dynamics offers a structural interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses along the lines of Walther Ludwig (1965) or, more recently, Ernst Schmidt (1991). Though W. sometimes mordantly criticizes Brooks Otis, whose work ( Ovid as an Epic Poet) W. calls “block-like” and “too reductive” (48), his debt to Otis is nevertheless significant. Influenced by the interpretive methods of critics such as Holzberg and Barchiesi, W.’s contribution adds a new dimension to the works of his predecessors.

In the introduction, W. lays out his objective, namely “to explore the currents of the story-world… [focusing] on two generative principles: repetition and narrative continuity. That is, Ovid continues his poem and defers closure by repeating narrative patterns and linking episodes in continuous narrative sequences” (5). Following the work of Ernst Schmidt in Ovid’s Poetische Menschenwelt: Die Metamorphosen als Metapher und Symphonie (Heidelberg, 1991), W. advances a guiding principle of interpretation generally derived from musical theory, a method that he expounds in less than a page (5). W. claims to go beyond Schmidt: “Schmidt underestimates the potential for narrative continuity…” (5). Yet W.’s cursory explanation of method fails to go very far, and he might have considered works such as that of Mauriz Schuster, who applied music theory to the structural studies of Tibullus. While there is much to be said for W.’s prompt movement to interpretation of the texts that he considers, he nevertheless might have done much more to establish his approach to reading text, explaining more clearly how his method differs from or enlarges on that of Schmidt.

The principal value of the book lies in W.’s clever interpretation of several passages and his consideration of how these passages cohere to impart structure. In the first chapter, W. lays out a kind of “chaos theory” for the opening of the poem, suggesting that in the midst of the unpredictability of chaos Ovid is able to reproduce the cyclical nature of myth as it gradually moves towards history. The poet’s repetition of the theme of chaos suggests how natural chaos becomes an allomorph of spiritual chaos, a movement of order to disorder, ultimately returning to order that is commensurate with the manner in which the gods themselves have been transformed within the poem.

In the second chapter, W. lays the groundwork for this idea that the gods, particularly Jupiter and Juno, are attitudinally transformed, an argument worthy of consideration. After moving past a workmanlike review of scholarship, W. develops his argument in this and throughout the next chapter by claiming that, while repeated patterns of narrative can occur in succession, they also frequently overlap with other examples of narrative sequences in the poem. This approach, W. concedes, harks back to the important work of Robert Coleman (“Structure and Intention in the Metamorphoses,” CQ 21 [1971] 461-77); yet W. goes well beyond Coleman’s briefer treatment.

W. moves his analysis from discussion of the repetition of certain patterns of chaos to the theme of love’s primal force. Apollo, for example, triumphs over chaos and then becomes an elegiac lover (56). The epic parody of Apollo’s slaying of the Python gives way to the elegiac parody of Cupid’s attack on Apollo. The theme of amatory attraction and encounter is repeated in the Io tale, which is itself linked through Jupiter to the tale of Epaphus and Phaethon, which, in turn, comes full circle to Apollo. Here W. assembles a number of well-known ideas, connecting these tales through the theme of loss of parental control over children, a notion which generally reflects the chaos of the opening of the poem (67f.).

The third chapter represents W.’s best work. Here he shows fairly effectively that Jupiter moves from red-hot lover to the patriarchal god of the Aeneid. W. especially considers the episodes of Io, Daphne, Callisto, Europa and Semele. In these tales, Juno is shown as having the role of jealous wife, a theme repeated, adapted and refined within each new context. Juno also enjoys an interesting intratextual relationship with Jupiter’s portrayal within certain tales. For example, in the case of the Semele episode, Juno chooses to disguise herself as Beroe, Semele’s nurse, with a view to destruction. Her ruse recalls how Jupiter can disguise himself, as he does when donning the form of Diana in the case of Callisto, with a view to seduction (88f.).

Ultimately one sees a paradigm repeated in most of these tales, despite the fact that they are separated within their narrative sequences. Although Jupiter moves from one lover to another throughout much of the poem, eventually he will come to have a greater interest in seeing his sons deified (97-105); Juno, conversely will make her peace when she shows her kindness in the Hersilia’s deification in Book 14.129-51, promoting “the ideal of conjugal harmony” (104).

In the final chapter, fittingly enough entitled “Endings,” W. seeks to show that Ovid defers the closure of the Metamorphoses because it is a carmen perpetuum. Indeed, Barchiesi ( Il poeta e il principe, 254) has suggested that the phrase ad mea tempora connects nicely with the opening of the Fasti, which poem comes just after it in the procession of Ovidian narrative. W. begins, however, by considering how Book 14 closes with the strong image of Hersilia being the recipient of Juno’s kindness (113); thus Juno emerges as the goddess of wedded bliss. The fifteenth book comprises the Pythagorean discourse (114ff.), which is, W. argues, the “repetitive form and content” that reflects the dynamics of continuation of the Metamorphoses (153); it also encompasses tales such as that of Aesculapius’s entrance into Rome (130ff.). These tales encapsulate the theme of change through repetition and aetiological explanation. Such explanation leads to W.’s cogent discussion of Caesar’s apotheosis (137ff.): “the transition between Aesculapius and Caesar (foreign and native god) reconfigures itself into a parallel between Aesculapius and Augustus. Both are saviors of the world and both are sons who succeed their fathers” (138).

The fifteenth book reluctantly provides the poem with a kind of uncomfortable ending to Ovid’s “personal history… that aetiologizes the poet’s transformation into his carmen perpetuum” (151). Yet, while the Metamorphoses‘ continuation will occur only in the Fasti through the medium of the poet ( vates), as expressed in the Met.’s sphragis (146), when it comes to the Metamorphoses, “the work on mutability is itself paradoxically immutable” (150).

The book is exhaustively documented (557 footnotes in 174 pages) and, though W.’s prose style is mostly pleasingly clear, there are occasional exceptions, e.g. incorrect agreement, “When he transforms himself into a bull to seduce Europa, Ovid…” (90) and the odd turn of phrase, “Juno’s wrath became angry” (99). But such infelicities are few and perhaps should have been caught by a copy editor. Nevertheless, the production of the book is handsome for a series monograph, the bibliography thorough, and the index general but nonetheless adequate.

While a few of W.’s conclusions (such as the reformation of Jupiter) are somewhat conservative for my taste, his arguments are worthy of consideration and debate. Moreover, W. will convince many, for he consistently offers substantive arguments that will have to be reckoned with. While undergraduates in an Ovid seminar will likely benefit from this book, W.’s chief impact will be at the professional level, for in Narrative Dynamics, as he did in Discourse of Wonders, W. offers, mutatis mutandis, numerous excellent readings that prompt further consideration of the poem’s design.