by Ovid

Other authorsMary M. Innes (Translator), Mary M. Innes (Introduction)
Paperback, 1988



Call number





Penguin Classics (1988), Paperback, 368 pages


Metamorphoses--the best-known poem by one of the wittiest poets of classical antiquity--takes as its theme change and transformation, as illustrated by Greco-Roman myth and legend. Melville's new translation reproduces the grace and fluency of Ovid's style, and its modern idiom offers a fresh understanding of Ovid's unique and elusive vision of reality.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jwhenderson
The Metamorphoses is a poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid describing the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework. Completed in AD 8, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature. The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is love—be it personal love or love personified in the figure of Amor (Cupid). Indeed, the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon, who is the closest thing this putative mock-epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god out of reason. The work as a whole inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of low humor.

I read this both with the Sunday Morning Group and as the text for a University of Chicago weekend retreat. Not unlike many works of classical literature this has been a rich cultural resource ever since including authors from Chaucer and Shakespeare to, more recently Ted Hughes, and composers from Gluck and Offenbach to Britten. Ovid based these tales on Greek myths, albeit often with stylistic adaptations.
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LibraryThing member Terpsichoreus
Sex, violence, and humor are often painted as low and primitive: the signs of a failing culture. Yet it is only in cultures with a strong economy and a substantial underclass that such practices can rise from duty to pastime. As Knox's introduction reminds us, Ovid's time was one of pervasive divorce, permissive laws, and open adultery, and our humble author participated in all of them.

Eventually, the grand tyrant closed his fist over the upper classes, exerting social controls and invoking the moral standard of an imagined 'golden age' in order to snatch power and discredit his rivals. Though already a popular and influential author and speaker, Ovid was exiled for being both wanton and clever.

Both he and Virgil were sent to the extremities of the empire by Augustus, and both wrote epics from their solitude that would equal Homer's. While Virgil's was a capitulation to the emperor, honoring his fictitious lineage and equating heroism with duty, Ovid's was a sly, labyrinthine re-imagining of classic tales, drawing equally on the gold of Olympus brow and the muck between a harlot's toes.

Ovid remained more coy about his dirt than Apuleius or Seneca, maintaining plausible deniability with irony and entendre throughout the complex work. Every view, vision, and opinion is put forth at some point, and very rarely are they played straight. Ovid's characters are remarkable creations, each one a subversion of the familiar legend that surrounds them. Of course, by this point many of us are more familiar with Ovid's versions than the ones he was making light of.

Virgil inspired the proud, righteous men of words: Dante, Tasso, Milton. Ovid created a style for the tricksters and the conflicted: Petrarch, Donne, Shakespeare, Ariosto, Rabelais. Each of Ovid's myths was a discrete vision, not only by plot, but by theme. His tales were not simply presentations of ideas, but explorations that turned back on themselves over and over.

The metaphysical poets would come to adopt this style, creating short works that explored themes, even ritualizing the idea's reversal in the sonnet's volta. The active, visual nature of Ovid was a progression from the extended metaphors of the philosophers to what could be called a true conceit: a symbolic representation at once supportive of and in conflict with the idea it bears.

Each of Ovid's tales flows, one into the next, building meaning by relations, counterpoints, repetition, and structure. Each small part builds into a grander whole. Just as all the sundry stories become a mythology, the many symbolic arguments become a philosophy.

Instead of the Virgilian heroic mode, where one man wins, thereby vindicating his philosophy, Ovid shows a hundred victories and losses, creating an aggregate meaning. That isn't to say that there isn't depth and conflict between characters and ideas in Virgil, but his centralized, political theme deprives him of the freedom to move from one idea to the next.

This lack of freedom is a boon for most authors. The most structured style is the one which most benefits an unskilled author, because it gives tangible boundaries and tools with which to create. With no boundaries, the author has no way to judge himself, and nowhere to start.

Imagine a man is given all the parts to a lawnmower. He can build little else than a lawnmower, but his chances of being successful are fairly high. Now give the same man all the uncut materials and tools in a shop. He could now make nearly any small machine, but it would take much more knowledge and skill.

Likewise, it's easier to write good poetry when the rhyme scheme, scansion, and meter are pre-determined than to create a beauty and flow in blank verse. Yet Ovid deconstructed his stories, starting and stopping them between books and moving always back and forth. He provided himself with absolute freedom, but maintained his flow and progression, even without the crutches of tradition.

While his irony and satire are the clearest signs of his remarkable mind, the most impressive is probably this: that he flaunted tradition, style, and form, but never faltered in his grand work.

Virgil knew what he did when he attached himself to Augustus' train; likewise Ovid recognized how his simultaneous praise and subversion of Augustus' legacy would play: none could openly accuse him of treason, but anyone with a solid mind would see the dangerous game Ovid played with his king and patron.

He did not shy from critiquing Augustus even as he wrote for him, for his nation, and for history. Ovid's parting shot is the famous assertion that as long as Rome's name is spoken aloud, so will be Ovid's. This has been echoed since by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, so that what Ovid realized we would never doubt today.

Even banished to the wilderness, out of favor, the only way to silence the artist is to kill him, and this must be done long before he has an audience. Augustus got his month, but his empire fell. Ovid's empire grows by books and minds each year, and its capital is still The Metamoprhoses.

I researched long trying to decide on a translation. Though there are many competent versions out there, I chose Martin's. I recall seeing the cover and coveting it, but distrusting the unknown translation. Imagine my surprise after my research turned up my whim.

I enjoyed Martin's translation for the same reason I appreciate Fagles': the vibrancy, wit, and drive of the language. Both are poetic, exciting, risk-taking, but also knowledgeable and deliberate. Every translation is a new work of art, all it's own, and I respect translators who don't pretend otherwise.

The translators of the fifties were more staunchly academic, capturing meaning and precision, but in enshrining the classics, they fail to take the sorts of risks that make a work bold. Contrarily, the early translators, like Pope, recreated the work in their own vernacular, not merely as a translation, but as a new work, as Shakespeare's plays are to Plutarch's Lives.

Martin (and Fagles) take the more modern approach, championed by the literary style of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, whose works are solidly grounded in their tradition, deliberately and knowledgeably drawn, but with the verve and novelty of the iconoclast. There is something particularly fitting in this, since Ovid himself was an iconoclast who mixed formalized tradition with subversion and irony.

Martin proved himself utterly fearless in the altercation between the Pierides and the Muses. Martin styles their competing songs as a poetry jam, drawing on the vocal forms of rap music. I must admit I was shocked at first, and unable to reconcile, but as I kept reading, I came to realize that it was not my place to question.

For translation is the adaptation of one style to another, one word or phrase or invocation to something more familiar. In his desire to capture the competition and skill of song in these early contests, he drew on what may be the only recognizable parallel to modern man. What is remarkable is not how different the two styles are from one another, but how similar.

It is comical, it is a bit absurd, but he is altering the original purpose less than Pope, who translated all of the poetry into anachronism. I never thought I would prefer a translation of Ovid which contained the word 'homie', but if Martin can be true enough to the poetry to write it, I can be brave enough to laud it.

I still laugh, but only because Martin has revealed to me something of the impossibility and oddity inherent to translation. This certainly isn't your grandfather's Ovid, but then, your grandfather's Ovid wasn't the real one, either.

I also appreciated Knox's introduction in both Martin's and Fagle's work, though Knox's Homeric background is stronger. I found the end-notes insightful and useful, though they are never quite numerous to suit me, but such is the nature of reading in translation.
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LibraryThing member thorold
The Metamorphoses is not a modest work in scope: in his 12,000-line epic, Ovid tells us that he's attempting nothing less than to give us the history of the world from its creation out of Chaos right up to the time of Julius Caesar. The opening section is a grand, orchestral description of the creation in the spirit of Epicurean philosophy, and the final section includes a long speech by Pythagoras exposing a number of his scientific ideas (and arguments for vegetarianism), but what everyone remembers - and what gives the poem its usual title - is the material that fills the middle 13 books, a vast and unruly collection of stories of sex, violence and magical transformation gleaned from authors like Hesiod, Vergil and Homer (or simply made up on the spot by Ovid himself). Gods (of either sex) lust for mortals (of either sex) and have their wicked way or are frustrated; mortals lust for the wrong other mortals; individuals make rash promises or accidentally find themselves in the wrong place; revenge and jealousy get out of hand; or there is simply too much testosterone and alcohol about. And when things go wrong or a god gets peeved, then it's usually the unfortunate mortal who gets changed into an animal, tree, or rock, according to taste. According to Bernard Knox, there are over 250 transformations in the course of the poem (and that's presumably not counting the unnumbered myrmidons and dragon's teeth...). Most of them seem to end unhappily for the mortal in question - in a few cases the transformation saves someone from an imminent danger of rape, but then they are stuck as a tree for the rest of their life. Iphis and Ianthe are the one couple who seem to profit long-term - Iphis is turned into a boy on the eve of the wedding so that they don't violate the Cretan same-sex marriage ban in force at the time. (This is the story Ali Smith uses in Girl meets boy.)

One moral that really comes out of the story is that we should be very careful not to give our children names that sound like animals or plants. That's just asking for trouble. Especially if they happen to be called "Cycnus" - there are three separate characters with this name, in Books II, VII and XII, and they all get turned into swans. Nominative determinism gone crazy...!

Of course, Ovid being such an accessible source for subsequent poets, painters, dramatists, opera librettists and others, many of the stories are very familiar, but what is really striking when you read the whole thing is the pace. Ovid rarely lingers over descriptions (when he does, he's usually making some sort of satirical point), but hammers through the story at maximum speed, and segues into a new and quite different story - connected or not - as soon as he gets to the climax of the previous one. Or inserts a story in the middle of another one, down to two or three levels (not quite as much deep recursion as the Panchatantra, though). From the Big Bang to the moment when "terra sub Augusto est", the music never stops. Even the transition from one book to the next is usually just the flick of an eye - Ovid knows all about cliffhangers and doesn't hesitate to use them.

The speed and efficiency of his storytelling come across most obviously in Books XII-XIV, where we cover essentially everything Ovid thinks we need to know about the Iliad, Odyssey and Aenead. The Iliad, in particular, is masterfully handled as a single "brain vs. brawn" debate between Ajax and Ulysses, in which the two of them make speeches as if in court to justify their respective contributions to the war effort. In case we hadn't guessed it already from all the scenes where Ovid gleefully shows us muscle-bound heroes acting like dangerous idiots, the poet is firmly on the side of Ulysses. Ovid enjoys himself making gentle fun of the conventions of Big Epic and can't resist teasing Vergil about some small continuity errors in the Aenead. But it's all quite respectful fun - Ovid isn't suggesting for a moment that we don't need to read these great poets.

Working out where Ovid himself stands isn't easy at this distance. And he presumably doesn't want it to be easy either - he's writing at the height of Augustus's somewhat hypocritical clampdown on the morals of the Roman upper classes, and whatever he thinks himself, he certainly doesn't want to say anything that counts as explicit blasphemy or corrupting public morals. He's only reporting well-known bits of Greek mythology, after all. It's all the fault of our own dirty minds if we get the impression that the gods and goddesses as portrayed in Ovid are a pretty rotten lot, with only one important claim on our piety, their power to harm us if we annoy them (rather like Augustus, in fact...). And it's for us to decide whether a belief in petulant supernatural interventions is compatible with the logical Epicurean world-view set out in Book I or the Pythagorean pantheism gently mocked in Book XV. From this distance, we can't really know what Ovid expected his sophisticated Roman readers to think, but on the whole I'm inclined to suspect that there's more mockery than piety going on.

The Charles Martin translation

My Latin is just about good enough to work my way through Ovid in the Loeb parallel text, but when I tried that it quickly became obvious that I couldn't possibly keep up with Ovid's frenetic narrative pace, so I switched to the Charles Martin translation, mostly because of the few that came to hand, it seemed the best compromise between closeness to the text and readability.

Martin chooses to translate Ovid's hexameters into a loose and free-running version of English blank verse (which is based on the iambic pentameter line, of course). This turns out to be a really good choice. It's a form with a very solid track-record, of course, and we're so used to hearing it that it reads very naturally. It does mean that the book gets longer, though - it seems to take Martin about 30-40% more lines than Ovid to say something, so it's not easy to go backwards and forwards between translation and original.

The language Martin uses occasionally looks alarmingly modern and American, but he avoids gratuitous anachronisms, and is conscientious about not putting anything in that doesn't have a proper basis in the original text. The one place where he really lets himself go is in the contest between the Muses and the daughters of Pierus in Book V, which he reads as a satire on bad poetry

We’ll show you girls just what real class is
Give up tryin’ to deceive the masses
Your rhymes are fake: accept our wager
Learn which of us is minor and which is major
There’s nine of us here and there’s nine of you
And you’ll be nowhere long before we’re through {...}
So take the wings off, sisters, get down and jam
And let the nymphs be the judges of our poetry slam!

...and even that isn't very far from what it says in the Latin, and Martin apologises for it in the introduction and tells us he couldn't help it.

Here and there he gives us an editorial interjection if it's needed to explain something like a pun that is only obvious in Latin, but he always marks them off clearly with square brackets. The text also comes with short and unpedantic notes and a very handy index/glossary of names and places that you will need for all those times when you really can't work out whether Jupiter is that person's grandfather, father-in-law, or uncle - or all three.

An oddity in this book is that the publishers have used as Introduction an essay Bernard Knox published in the NYRB in 1998, in which he compares the currently-available translations of Ovid and finds them all wanting, except for the work-in-progress by Martin, whose completion he eagerly awaits. Of the current ones, Ted Hughes gets most points for style, but not many for accuracy. That feels almost like the Elizabethan habit of binding favourable blurbs from other poets as part of your book!
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LibraryThing member Larkken
The classic work in mythology, comprising the original iteration of many of the now-cliche forms of Greek (and Roman) myths. This is not to say that these myths are in their original form, Ovid (a Roman author) tends toward the romanticized versions of Greek myths, but in general delivers quick, accessible reads, all based loosely on the theme of metamophosis from one form to another, like nymphs turning into trees. Flows better than my favorite collection (Hamilton's Mythology) for those who are more interested in reading myths for the sake of literature, but probably not recommended for scholars unless they are serious about the scholarship. If you simply want a collection of myths for reference, quick study, or random reading, go with Edith Hamilton.… (more)
LibraryThing member ponder
Metamorphoses by Ovid is a captivating collection of myths. Am I the only person to wish for a flow chart of events and relationships? I loved it, however, I found myself obsessed with researching many of the stories on the internet. Not that I ever have a problem with this but it started to feel compulsive.

So many brutalities due to spurned god love.… (more)
LibraryThing member AuntieClio
It seems to me that reading Metamorphoses at least once is worthy of the effort, if only to be exposed to this grand writing, and learn the origin stories of things we already know in our contemporary lives. Black ball, Midas touch, hyacinth and Pygmalion come to mind.

There’s so much going on in this work. It is grand and sweeping, and sometimes choppy and even more difficult. I would like to have a better grounding in the literature of the time so that I could understand the allusions and homages more easily. Romans loved their blood and guts and adventure tales.

In fact, Metamorphoses is rife with violence, gruesome in its detail and astonishing in the litany of names of characters involved in all the “stabbity-stab-stab.” Rape is another prevalent topic, as is punishment by the gods and goddesses.

This is not a nice, tidy look at the story of Rome, fiction or not. There were numerous times when I had to stop and remind myself that Metamorphoses was written for an audience who had certain expectations for a great story, and for whom violence was nothing to be squeamish about.

The attitudes towards women are difficult, but again, this was written in first century CE, when the very idea of women speaking up for themselves and showing agency was frowned upon at best, punishable at worst. Ancient Rome was a very stratified society, even wealthy women were held to be barely better than the slave class. So it is no surprise this found its way into the literature.

There’s so much to enjoy, and revile, in Metamorphoses, it’s impossible to recount them in any way that makes sense. I could comb back through each book’s commentary and look for things to write about here. But I won’t.

What I will say is that reading Metamorphoses was a journey worth taking. One which I am just as happy to have completed, leaving me to move on to less complicated books in my stacks. One lasting effect I am sure of, nothing I see or read will ever be the same since reading it.
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LibraryThing member simonmagus
for me, the best modern translation of this essential retelling of Roman mythology. Mandelbaum is a master of the iambic pentameter, although he may use too many effects for some readers. If you love the Metamorphoses and have a tolerance for older poetry, you must read the Arthur Golding translation (1567) as well, available in at least three editions.… (more)
LibraryThing member VivalaErin
I absolutely love this Renaissance translation. The long lines are quite a workout, but the beautiful language makes it completely worth it. When using Ovid as a reference, this is definitely the translation to use for eloquence.
LibraryThing member Choccy
I would've given this book four stars if it's more organized. The frequent jumps from one story to another really annoyed me. I think I like Bulfinch's Mythology better.

Anyway, the title is damn right accurate since many people/deities here were turned into birds, rivers, stones, etc whether as forms of punishments or pity from the gods. Speaking about the gods, yes, I should repeat this: they're a bunch of vengeful, petty, envious rapists/douche bags. I don't think I can find any favorite. Definitely don't wanna live in a world full of those scumbags.

Some stories are great, some are downright boring, if not repetitive. But, still worth to read, I guess.
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LibraryThing member gbsallery
A surprisingly pacey read; whilst somewhat lacking in structure, there is at least some overall thematic cohesion, and the writing itself is superb. If girls being turned into trees is your thing, then this is the epic poem for you. Also, rape.
LibraryThing member ron_benson
I can't find the original version that I read in my classical civilization course. This is still the same. Ovid is an excellent writer and this compendium of translated "stories" is a beautiful read for those looking for a slice of classical mythology. My favorite is still Orpheus and Eurydice.
LibraryThing member redknightalex
Important Note: This review is for the edition translated by Z. Philip Ambrose. Seeing as the review focuses mainly on the translation, this will not work for all copies of the book. You have been warned.

Right of the bat, I'll admit I'm slightly biased. The translator for this version, Ambrose, was my professor for my greek and roman mythology class I took at UVM. This was a required text and took me about five minutes to realize he was the translator once I got into class. That automatically made the class special. Of all the ancient translations I've read, I can finally say I've known the translator. Just keep this in mind as I continue my review.

Ovid is great, pure and simple. I love his stories and the way he writes them. Every time once of my friends asks for a story when we're bored I immediately go to my memories of Ovid and pick out one of my favorites stories. Usually this is the tale of Narcissus and Echo or Atremis and Actaeon.

Translation and Notes:
If anyone is interested in reading Ovid they already know the value of his works and what they contain (if you don't, then the rest of this review may not be as important to you). Henceforth, that is not the primary focus of my review and will, instead, focus on the translation, notes, and diagrams included in this edition. There is a formidable Table of Contents that lists each story for easy reference. At the end there contains an index/glossary that is near sixty pages in length, chronicling each place, god, and mortal, who they are and when they appear. This is much more handy that it first sounds and I've used it constantly. The introduction, which for me is normally boring and overly long, gives a brief synopsis of each book and the tales included within. That helped me to no end when studying for a test!

Notes in the book were on the bottom of the page and usually helped the reader with synonyms (like Abantaides is Perseus), places, and names. Easy and very important.

The two most important things in this edition are the illustrations and the translation itself. The illustrations, of which there are many, added greatly to the events depicted in each tale. I found that I used these illustrations as landmarks for individual tales more than the Table of Contents or the Index. For these alone I would recommend this edition yet we have not even touched upon the translation! Fortunately, the translation was just what I wanted: readable and very true to the original Latin. When I first read this translation as a sophomore, I thought it fun to read. Not necessarily easy (for I think poetry and classical texts should be a brain-working experience and require a decent amount of effort put into it) but still fun. When I revisited the text as a senior and translated the original Latin I developed a new appreciation for Ovid and Ambrose. Ovid's Latin was great (of course) and Ambrose did his utmost best to stay true to the original. I used Ambrose's work as a 'cheat sheet', if you will, as I read the Latin for class. The translation was almost word for word, line for line, and a young Latin student's gift from the gods. Until you've tried translating for yourself you can't imagine how great this was, to have each line match up with the original. Just...superb!

However, I must note that I have not read a different translation. Overall, I don't think it would matter. Penguin comes out with decent translations (and they have the most, by far) and Oxford World Classics give even better translations with awesome notes except I found both these translations lacking something special when I glanced over them in the bookstores. Perhaps because they didn't have those wonderful illustrations or they aren't set-up as neatly, I still have no desire to further explore my dislike. Take this new bit of information as you will, my view of this translation will certainly not change.

A great literal, but definitely readable, translation of Ovid's well-known work of stories and myths, complete with illustrations. Great for the beginner and Latin student alike. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member markbstephenson
Was Ovid the most talented poet of all time? Who outdid him?
LibraryThing member Ljrei77
A must have for anyone who enjoys mythology. Ovid details the origins of so many things in this book. It is even applicable to modern day life for some of our namings come from this book. Incredible stuff.
LibraryThing member rosasolis
In my opinion a relatively dry and clunky text - before buying this version please do have a look at other prose and verse translations until you find something that might suit you better!
LibraryThing member richardhobbs
Vellum 1612 edition. Missing one page of dedication. Soiled
LibraryThing member TheBooknerd
I love Metamorphoses -- it's on my list of books everyone should read. I generally prefer the Greek writers over the Romans, but Ovid is one you don't want to miss. The myths included range from the popular tales that we all know and love to more obscure events that are like gems to mythology buffs. I do have to say, though, that the Penguin Classics version that I have is a prose translation, and I don't care for that at all. It's one clunky paragraph after the next, and I find it hard to read. I recommend finding a more verse-like translation.… (more)
LibraryThing member amaraduende
This is THE Metamorphoses translation to read. Others can't even hold a candle to it (I know, I read some side by side to compare). Beautiful, touching, amazing.

Rereading bits of this at work 6/11. So good.
LibraryThing member MarysGirl
A tour de force. I've read Greek and Roman myths and folklore since I was a kid and everything plus much much more is here. Ovid's book is the source for much of our western knowledge about these myths. This translation is wonderful. The original was a poem and this is done as prose, but the descriptions are lyrical and lush, providing wonderful word pictures.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sandydog1
Seemingly dozens of rape stories, and the only prevention mechanism was to be morphed into a laurel tree, cow, toaster oven, you name it. And sometimes even that didn't stop these twisted deities. There were many other snippets of the well known stories of Perseus, Theseus, Icarus, Jason, etc., as well as some "new" takes on Aeneas and Ulysses. I was intrigued by the brief comments about natural history (ie, spontaneous generation).

The stories and characters are many; it can get confusing. Also, I don't think I caught much of Ovid's humor. I listened to the Blackstone Recording and Mr. Kraft is an excellent, dramatic reader. Sometimes however he did sound like the possessed Rick Moranes character in the first Ghostbusters movie.

Overall, it was a very fanciful and worthwhile experience.
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LibraryThing member simonmagus
While I do have problems with this edition of Golding's Metamorphosis, I have problems with all three of the modern editions (Rouse, Nims, and Forey), mostly in the free hand that they all play with punctuation while touting their preservation of Golding's spelling. However, Nims seems to come the closest to Golding's original and has a good amount of critical apparatus without being intrusive.… (more)
LibraryThing member crazyjerseygirl
Ovid rocks and move over Clapton because Mandelbaum is now god. This is so well translated that you can feel the poetry flow from Ovid as if you were reading in the ancient greek. I highly suggest this for beginners in greco-roman mythology as it gives a nice over-view of some of the more interesting stories. Steer clear of the old translations though, its Mandelbaum all the way baby.… (more)
LibraryThing member CaptainBroadchurch
Were Metamorphoses contemporary it would be a tv clip show called "World's Most Amazing Transformations!", would be aired during the graveyard slot on a Tuesday night, and would be narrated by Jamie Theakston or some other washed up has-been whose one marketable quality lies in having a voice people might recognise.

What's more, it would still be a thousand times better than this horrible book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Silvernfire
Short version: loved the writing, got a bit worn out by the subject matter.

Ovid is one of the great writers of Western literature and that's pretty obvious from reading The Metamorphoses. I don't know how well Allen Mandelbaum's translation conveys the original Latin, but I enjoyed it. J.C. McKeown's introduction was enough to orient me to the poem and give it some historical context without being overwhelming. (FYI for those who care: beyond that introduction and an afterword in the Everyman's Library edition, there are no other explanatory notes.)

I have a lifelong interest in Greek and Roman mythology and many of these stories were not new to me—and many of them were, and that was wonderful. I appreciated Ovid's ability to pull all these stories together (Wikipedia helpfully tells me that there are more than 250 myths involved) into one narrative, with stories nested within other stories. Many retellings of myths focus on plot rather than character: A happened, then B happened, and it ended at C. Ovid gives the characters time to reflect on their desires or actions, to waver in their decisions, to almost save themselves. Even as I was figuratively glaring at Juno while she plotted the destruction of still yet another of Jove's victims/lovers, I enjoyed seeing her point of view.

But, well, it's over 500 pages of stories with mostly unhappy endings. Very few people are changed into something else except as a punishment. Love, for so many of the gods and men, was interchangeable with rape. Even when a couple found mutual love, it often ended in death or unwanted transformation. None of this was new to me; it was just wearying reading so much of it at once. So while I loved this book, it'll be a while before I consider rereading it.
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LibraryThing member jrissman
I read 228 out of 554 pages of Charles Martin's translation of "Metamorphoses" by Ovid before deciding not to finish the book. Ovid was a Roman poet (roughly 43 BC to 17 AD), but his "Metamorphoses" is essentially a book of Greek myths originating hundreds of years before Ovid's time. The entire work is in hexameter poetry, and Charles Martin does an excellent job with this. I particularly love his incorporation of certain modern phrases and wording (e.g. Book V, Line 63: "The crowd went totally ballistic, then") and when the daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a poetry contest, and their poetry is rendered in rhyming couplets full of modern urban slang (Book V, Lines 449-495). Martin is clearly very talented, and he's done a brilliant job. I can't envision a translator doing better, at least until English has evolved and a more modern update is in order.

So, if I liked Martin's poetry, why didn't I finish the book? Well, I didn't like Ovid's part. Scores of Greek myths are told in a perplexing order, without apparent chronology or sequence. Sometimes a myth is set up as a framing story for another myth (e.g. "So-and-so began to tell her tale, thus:"), and then the book never returns to the framing story, instead proceeding as if the sub-tale were the main tale. Ovid assumes the reader already knows about the most famous mythological figures (e.g. Jason, Perseus, etc.) and jumps to particular, lesser-known episodes in these heroes' lives, omitting their greatest adventures. Inconsistencies in the way certain figures are presented in different parts of the book (e.g. the Sun god) makes it feel like a work written by multiple authors over a long time period. The result is that the book is probably best appreciated as a bunch of tidbits without a larger coherent structure or plot.

They myths are filled with cruel, vain, and vindictive gods and the suffering they inflict upon hapless mortals- and sometimes on others, such as when Latona's son (i.e. Apollo) defeats a satyr in a pipe-playing contest and then, as the satyr "cries, the skin is stripped from his body/until he's all entirely one wound:/blood runs out everywhere, and his uncovered/sinews lie utterly exposed to view;/his pulsing veins were flickering, and you/could number all his writhing viscera/and the gleaming organs underneath his sternum" (Book VI, Lines 555-560). Roughly every other story involves a punishment (typically permanent transformation into a plant or animal, but occasionally violent death) that seems like a total perversion of justice. If a book anything like "Metamorphoses" were written today in modern language, it would not be published, and it might be considered the work of a psychopath.

"Metamorphoses" feels like a confusing blur of stories of cruelty, vindictiveness, and injustice. The excellent poetry cannot ultimately save a story that is so fundamentally unpleasant to read. I understand that "Metamorphoses" is a cultural artifact and a window into the myths of the ancient Greeks, and thus it has value beyond the enjoyment a reader may get from the plot and characters. But Ovid's omission of the most culturally important stories means his work is only suitable for people already versed in the myths. "Metamorphoses" would be a good choice for Greco-Roman scholars or aficionados. Most people would do better with a collection like "D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths," a beautifully-illustrated volume that was my own childhood introduction to the Greek myths (and which inspired wonder and enduring love of these stories in a way that Ovid does not).
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Original language


Original publication date

1994 (English: Charles Martin)
1993 (English: Allen Mandelbaum)
1955 (English: Rolfe Humphries)
1955 (English: Mary M. Innes)
ca. 8 AD

Physical description

368 p.; 7.77 inches


0140440585 / 9780140440584

Other editions

Metamorphoses by Ovid (Paperback)
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