BMCR 2023.09.27

On Ovid’s Metamorphoses

, On Ovid's Metamorphoses. Core knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. Pp. 192. ISBN 9780231200707



“You can’t read the Metamorphoses passively,” Gareth Williams declares in the Epilogue of the work under review, “and the challenge is to try to meet Ovid at least halfway” (p. 162). Of all the ways of approaching Ovid’s Metamorphoses offered in the book, this pronouncement is its methodological core, and there are few better to issue this challenge on behalf of Ovid than Williams, who has published extensively on Ovid for the last thirty years.[1] Williams succeeds, in On Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in compelling us to read the Metamorphoses actively with him. The book is full of lively and provocative readings of Ovid’s greatest work, careening through its changing tales and tales about change to portray a work which, having endured throughout the two millennia since its composition, find a deep resonance even in—or especially in—the 2020s.

The four chapters comprising On Ovid’s Metamorphoses are not intended as a sustained monograph, nor as a companion piece, nor even as a comprehensive account of the topics addressed. Rather, Williams offers some different angles of approach to the Metamorphoses (“intended to provoke and challenge,” p. x), ranging across the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses and with each chapter tackling issues of individuality, instability, morality, and justice. This is a book with its roots in the classroom——specifically, in a first-year Humanities course at Columbia College——and it would suit as an introductory course text. More broadly, it appeals to anyone interested in dipping into some analyses of the Metamorphoses which are most relevant to today’s world. Columbia’s Core Knowledge series is a well-suited vehicle for this kind of book, and it is a refreshing book to read.

Several core themes and recurring figures are at the heart of this work. Above all, every page is suffused with Ovid’s eye for changefulness, not only in the narratives of transformation which make up the Metamorphoses, but also in the deliberately shifting sands of Ovid’s language and in the constant possibility of change which each Ovidian line promises or threatens. Another theme which is presented prominently, but which comes and goes in the book, is the relevance and resonance of the Metamorphoses in a twenty-first century context. Especially foregrounded are the modern parallels to be found in Ovid’s presentation of self-discovery and experimentation; in speech that is shut down or in Ovid’s narratives of persecution; and in the importance of telling fact from fiction (pp. 11–12). But Williams warns us to (t)read carefully in conflating the first and the twenty-first centuries, and so the modern resonances of the poem serve mostly as framing reflections. The second chapter, for example, opens with our current obsession with fake news via Donald Trump and the rise of the internet and social media (p. 49), positing that the challenges posed by these changes are in fact “already embedded in the Metamorphoses” (p. 50)——but the chapter only really returns to these parallels using modern buzzwords to describe characters (so Tlepolemus is a “whistleblower,” p. 79, and Fama is “the superspreader of gossip,” pp. 80–81).

Looming large over the book are (arguably) the two most important figures in Ovid’s life: Caesar Augustus and Virgil. Williams depicts Ovid as constantly reacting to and against his emperor and literary predecessor, as in his provocations to Augustus’ programme of renewal (by focusing “on changefulness, unpredictability, the potential deceptiveness of appearance, and the fickle ways of the gods,” p. 8, four categories which sum up each chapter). And what Virgil expands, Ovid contracts (and vice versa, p. 74), and so Ovid’s Aeneas (pp. 16–21) and Orpheus (pp. 97–114), for example, are strange, compressed countertexts to Virgil’s Aeneid and Georgics. There is an Augustan and/or Virgilian primer before several sections throughout the book, helping to contextualise the Metamorphoses in the light of its largest influences.

Chapter 1 (“Diversity, Idiosyncrasy, and Self-Discovery in the Metamorphoses”) turns to Ovid’s handling of individuality, invention, and self-exploration, themes exemplified by the case studies of Narcissus, Medea, and the gender changes of Iphis and Hermaphroditus. The middle section on Medea is where this chapter really shines. Williams demonstrates Medea’s appetite for “moreness” (p. 28), as well as her capacity for growth (in comparison with the preceding discussion of Narcissus, who fails to develop). Most interesting is the way that Williams presents Medea, alongside Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Bacchus elsewhere in the book, as figures who challenge Ovid himself. These figures take on a life beyond Ovid, “dangerously capable of diverting the entire flow” (p. 35) of the Metamorphoses and posing significant challenges to Ovid’s aim of arriving at his contemporary age by the end of the poem. By the book’s conclusion, Williams has concluded that only Augustus has the power “to dictate the course of Ovid’s entire poem and to draw it relentlessly, inexorably, inevitably to its august conclusion” (p. 118), pun intended; but Medea puts up a dangerous attempt, and this reading of her is particularly compelling.

Chapter 2 (“The Liabilities of Language: Change and Instability in Ovid’s World of Words”) examines linguistic instability in the Metamorphoses, viewed through the prism of twentieth-century “fake news” and the unsettling and unsure times of the first centuries BCE and CE. The key players of this chapter are Apollo and Daphne, Daedalus, Nestor, and Fama, all of whom illuminate the dangerous mutability of language. In particular, Book 8’s depiction of Daedalus and Icarus, always a popular segment in readings of the Metamorphoses in and out of the classroom, is given nuanced treatment here as we follow Daedalus’ metamorphosis from genius inventor to stricken father to murderous uncle.  Chapters 3 and 4 chart more unsettling paths, delving into more serious topics (and with more seriousness, in that there are fewer quips and puns than in the first two chapters). Chapter 3 (“The Path of Deviance: Sexual Morality and the Incestuous Urge in the Metamorphoses”) tackles behavioural extremes, particularly incest. Are there limits of “acceptable” conduct in the Metamorphoses, Williams asks, with the correlative question “who decides what is acceptable?” answered in Chapter 4’s focus on the gods and justice (“Rough Justice: Victimization, Revenge, and Divine Punishment in the Metamorphoses”). Williams argues that in the case of the incestuous love between Byblis and Caunus, Ovid is “far more compassionate than condemnatory” (p. 89), and what follows is a fascinating exploration of the role of letters in the unfolding of the narrative. Where Williams thus far has not discussed Ovidian works beyond the Metamorphoses, here the Heroides and Ars Amatoria make welcome features in their presentation of the epistolary form.

Chapter 4 has two interrelated focuses, both of which are involved with punishment and justice. Firstly, at the level of the Metamorphoses, Williams confronts any modern unease about reading the assaults and aggression (often sexual) in the poem head-on, and it is only in this chapter that the twenty-first century reception context of the book is fully integrated into the chapter. The chapter focuses on aggressive acts by those in power, as well as the silent or voiced protests at these acts, and it is in this latter sense that “the poem has important protest value—it speaks a message of urgent modern relevance” (p. 129). Philomela, for instance, finds her voice and fights back against Tereus, while Arachne challenges Minerva. Secondly, Augustus’ real-life relegation of Ovid to the Black Sea in 8 CE parallels the Metamorphoses’ themes of power being wielded intransigently, and like his characters, Ovid loses his (poetic) voice and is censored and punished. Williams achieves the ultimate Ovidian conflation of life and work by terming Ovid’s exilic poetry, the Tristia, Book 16 of the Metamorphoses—a superb configuration considering that, as Williams says, “the exilic poetry delivers on a storyline foretold in the Metamorphoses” (p. 156). The Epilogue and this neat arrival at the end of Ovid’s own life draws Williams’ book together in an unexpectedly satisfying way, given the initial promise of some experimental threads on the poem. The Bibliography is a little haphazard (why, for instance, would “Ovid as a Butterfly,” p. 167, constitute its own section?) but provides a variety of relevant further reading.

It is a shame, given Williams’ clear command over Ovid’s Latin, that the book chooses to discuss the Metamorphoses only in translation. Williams occasionally highlights this, as in the section on Narcissus, where he discusses what is lost in translation from Ovid’s Latin (p. 25), or in the labyrinthine and miscommunicative Latin of Daedalus, where the provided translation “captures something, but by no means all, of the syntactical density” (p. 72) of the original. There is something fascinating and meaningful to be found in almost every Ovidian verse, and it constrains the book notably to work from translations and return to the Latin only as an afterthought. Ovid’s Latin becomes reported speech, and this translation-only approach comes at a detriment to the book.

Overall, however, Williams’ libellus (his “little book,” as he often terms it, pp. ix, 14, 161) is a sparkling read, written with great expertise and sensitivity. Freed from footnotes and academic formality, Williams’ prose enjoys itself, and is in turn enjoyable to read: Ovid’s Aeneas, we are told, “is a decaffeinated version of Virgil’s original” (p. 18); Medea transforms from “teen to killing machine” (p. 28); and Minerva weaves a tapestry that is a “sort of woolen Windsor Castle” (p. 143). The book moreover complements the type of attention currently afforded to the poem by, for instance, Stephanie McCarter’s translation of the Metamorphoses, and by the debates surrounding the use and teaching of Ovid in the #MeToo era.[2] It is a snapshot of Ovid in the modern classroom, and with a wider lens it is a persuasive argument for the continued utility and relevance of the classics in the modern era. And it succeeds in its exhortations to the reader to pick up a copy of the Metamorphoses and start reading back—“to meet Ovid at least halfway” (p. 162).



[1] From his first two monographs on Ovid’s exile poetry, Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid’s Exile Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and The Curse of Exile: A Study of Ovid’s “Ibis” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), to most recently, Philosophy in Ovid, Ovid as Philosopher, ed. Gareth Williams and Katharina Volk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses, transl. Stephanie McCarter (London: Penguin, 2022). On the debates, I am thinking of Daniel Mendelsohn’s article in the New Yorker, prompted by McCarter’s translation: “Should Ovid’s Metamorphoses Have a Trigger Warning?”, November 7, 2022.