I'd never read Ovid's Metamorphoses before, but it felt like I had. Ovid's famous poem (which I read in an enjoyable prose translation from Penguin Classics) tells stories from Greek and Roman myth and folklore. They're not all instantly familiar, but many of them are -- who hasn't read of Pyramus and Thisbe, of Phaethon, of Arachne, of Perseus and Andromeda?

But, hey, if I've read some of these stories before, I haven't read all of them, and it's good to read things in a quasi-primary source, rather than in derived and edited modern compilations of mythology. It's just how, even though everyone knows the story of the Trojan War, reading The Iliad is still worth it.

This is undeniably a classic, in the most literal sense of the word; but, as I did with The Canterbury Tales, I want to evaluate it on its own merits, rather than just genuflecting in respect. Fortunately, Ovid holds up under this sort of examination rather better than Chaucer, so I sound a bit less of an uncultured twit.

Stylistically, we can thank the translator: I'm obviously unequipped to determine the fidelity of the translation to the original Latin, but I am equipped to say that the English was graceful and natural. The conversion from poetry to prose suggests that readability in English was of more interest to the translator than strict literality -- a choice I applaud wholeheartedly.

Story-wise, the book is a bit odd, in that it's really a collection of micro-stories woven together with often-flimsy segues: When Ovid finishes a story about Cadmus, for instance, he then talks about how woe would come to Cadmus's descendants, and inside of a paragraph, we're off reading about someone else. These abrupt transitions threw me at first, because I was treating them as digressions, and waiting to get back to the main story line. But once I realized that there is no main story line, that the text meanders through a bunch of thematically-linked anecdotes with no overarching plot, I was set.

The biggest critique I can make is that there are an awful lot of stories here, and they are a bit repetitive -- at about the thirtieth time that someone gets turned into a tree for pissing off a god, it begins to feel old hat. Still, there's enough variety (including a somewhat out-of-place long discussion of ostensibly Pythagorean philosophy near the end, and a truly amazing bit of sucking up to Augustus) and chocolately mythic goodness mixed in that it's never a slog.

If, like me, you checked out every book on mythology in your junior high library, you'll enjoy reading this (and wonder why your junior high didn't have it on the shelves).


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