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Why Should I Buy This Book?

No work from classical antiquity, either Greek or Roman, has exerted such a continuing and decisive influence on European literature as Ovid's Metamorphoses. The emergence of French, English, and Italian national literatures in the late Middle Ages simply cannot be fully understood without taking into account the effect of this extraordinary poem. And the development of a great deal of modern poetry draws no less heavily on Ovid's masterpiece.  

The Metamorphoses is, first and foremost, an extraordinarily fecund resource for narratives, especially stories of human personalities in conflict. It is true that most of these stories do not originate in Ovid. He has culled them from all sorts of sources, but here they all exist together, rather like an encyclopedia of mythology, giving direct access to a magical world of fiction which provides all those interested in art a resource without equal. 

In some cases, Ovid's account is the only source for a particular story, one which has been picked up and embellished and re-embellished throughout European literature. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, for example, was one of the first to enter European literature. In the Middle Ages this story was turned into a 900 line French poem. It was also used by the English poets Chaucer and Gower and the Italian Renaissance poets Boccaccio and Tasso. Shakespeare used the tale as the basis for Romeo and Juliet and, in a comic version of the same narrative, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  

But the popularity of the Metamorphoses rests also, and more importantly, on the delight people experience in reading the poem, which is self-consciously epic in its scope. Ovid is seeking to recount the history of the world and of human civilization, establishing the nature of the god and goddesses, the creation of the human race, the interactions of gods and human beings, and some major legendary historical events, like the Trojan War, the founding of Rome.  

These very disparate elements are joined together in a seamless narrative, so that we move easily from one story into the next, and often we, as readers, are drawn into some new tale before we fully realize that the old one is over. This provides a constant sense of movement. None of the stories is very long, but Ovid avoids any erratic sense of stopping and starting all the time by the skill of his narrative links. What emerges is something far more than just a catalogue of ancient stories but a genuine narrative with a logic of its own. 

The poem's many episodes share a common theme—the idea of metamorphosis or transformation, usually accompanied by violence. This gives to virtually all the stories an inherently dramatic quality, since the violence frequently involves a helpless and protesting victim, the evidence for whose change often remains forever in the landscape, the heavens, or in the natural life around us.  

Finally, the strength of this poem may very well rest on the fact that it offers no particular vision of life and has no particular interest in such a high ambition. It is, by contrast, a celebration of the literary genius of the writer, a self-conscious demonstration of the pure pleasures of fiction without recourse to any high moral seriousness.

Ian Johnston

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