Wednesday, 28 September 2011

After the End: Ovid's Metamorphoses, Bk 1

The end-of-the-world narrative has many forms and many meanings. But, like its cousin the Dystopian or Utopian novel, it is always charged with a message about the world that the writer and reader share, the world that is ending or has ended. Sometimes, like a dystopia, it carries a warning about an aspect of our world that may prove to be destructive; other times, it reminds us of what is at the essence of who we are.

All ; Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 1, trans. Arthur Golding ; Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker ; Cormac McCarthy, The Road ; Max Brooks, World War Z and The Ultimate Zombie Survival Guide ; John Wyndham, The Day of The Triffids ; Mary Shelley, The Last Man ; Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End ; Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood ; St John the Divine, The Revelation ; Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines

1. Ovid – Metamorphoses, Book 1 (translated by Arthur Golding, 1567)

Without wanting to make sweeping statements about the context or purpose of Ovid’s fifteen book poem, the Metamorphoses, I would say that its great achievement is its use of collage: its ability to link different ideas and images with an immediacy that allows them to retain their individual power. Jumping from story to story, the narrative puts the various myths of gods and heroes and nymphs into an ordered sequence while at the same time celebrating their chaotic instability. Golding’s translation, informed by his own Calvinism and the religious and social instabilities of his time, gives this contrast an urgency that is both spiritual and political.

In the first book, a world created out of chaos begins with a Golden Age of implicit order. But the world declines; soon order must be enforced in the face of hardship. Finally, the world descends into the Age of Iron, a time of uncertainty and cruelty:

Of iron is the last,
In no part good and tractable as former ages past.
For when that of this wicked age once opened was the vein,
Therein all mischief rush├Ęd forth. Then faith and truth were fain...
(Lines 143-146)

Jove, the king of the gods, calls ‘a Court of Parliament’ of gods together (191), who resolve that they will have to destroy the world and start afresh. At first, Jove wants to use his lightning bolts to destroy the Earth, but stops for fear that ‘the flames perhaps so high should grow / As for to set heaven on fire and burn up all the sky’ (300). Instead, Jove floods the world until

No difference was between the sea and ground,
For all was sea.

The images of the drowning world are playful – a mutation and transformation of the world, rather than a process of destruction: a wolf swims in a field of swimming sheep, dolphins play in the trees, anchors are buried in green fields. And all is not lost – a good man and a good woman, Deucalion and Pyrrha, survive the flood. Throwing stones behind their shoulders, the couple observe a miracle: the stones turn into a new race of humans, as perfect as marble sculptures, and ‘of these are we’ – humanity as we now know it – ‘the crooked imps and stony race’ (493).

Here, the apocalypse serves to remind humanity that they are creatures of divine creation. The fact of their creation is what gives them their strength; when this fact is forgotten, when humans forget their spiritual debt to the universe, they descend from the beauty of gold into the hardness of iron and have to start again.

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