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The Serpent's Teeth by Ovid
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The Serpent's Teeth

by Ovid

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The Serpent's Teeth is a translation by Mary Innes of several parts of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The Penguins Epics version contains most of Books III-VI and features several characters still well known including Echo, Narcissus, Perseus, and Arachne. In many cases the stories are of passionate love and most of the characters end up transformed into rivers, mountains, and beasts. The Penguin Epics version is told in prose so has neither the Latin nor the pentameter of the original but retains at it's heart the depth of feeling that the characters often have for one another. As a comparison to the previous works in the Epics collection, Ovid stands slightly apart in the imagery and romance of his tales with the stories being more fable than description.

The Fables within The Serpent's Teeth include the creation of places and features. Boetia is the first to be named, coming in Book III of Metamorphoses. The teeth in question and their outputs bear a remarkable resemblance to elements of the tale of the Argonauts. Ovid is perhaps not inventing stories here but is embellishing them and giving them a vibrance that earlier authors may not have. In particular, Ovid makes plentiful reference to Bacchus and to the heresy of not believing Bacchus to be divine. It is interesting historically that Ovid would still be seeking to fight a theocratic debate over Bacchus's divinity as late as the time of Augustus. Bacchanalian revelry provides a backdrop to some of the tales and brings a sense of frenzied loss of control.

The gods of Ovid's world are hugely vengeful. Juno is extremely wrathful and many characters are transformed into another form because they have displeased the gods in some minor way. Ovid's tales of passion are set within a very rigid framework of obedience - the merest slip in worship of the gods leads to a terrible outcome for so many of Ovid's characters.

Equally Ovid's heroes are not far removed from the slayers of earlier literature. Perseus kills dozens of men including Atlas by using the Gorgon's head. This is still a time of great deeds being done by the sword. The transformation of Atlas is a relatively typical example of a metamorphosis - he is transformed on his death into the Atlas Mountains. The descriptions of change seem to have resonated through the centuries as the explanation of why a particular geographical or zoological feature exists follows a similar structure to fables told much later on in literature.

The decriptions are not just of fable though, they are also of deed. The deeds of warriors like Perseus while slaying the sea monster or the battle scenes are vividly described. One of the key distinctions in the transition from Greek to Roman writing shown in the Penguin Epics collection appears to be the greater description of action and motive. Ovid is though clearly preoccupied with affairs of the heart. His characters feel great depths of passion to the extent that they would rather die than be apart - and they do die. The tragedies of star-crossed lovers are a recurring theme throughout the work.

Love in most of its forms is present. Narcissus, an eminently Greek tale, is a well-known kind of love and it has its consequences even if Ovid's version is slightly different from other interpretations. Love is not always gentle in Ovid's world and there are horribly cruel things done by some characters to each other. An attempt at rape and a truly horrific revenge are slightly disturbing even to a modern eye.

It is though worth noting that not all of the activity is gripping. Some tales are over in just a few paragraphs and it can be a little confusing when a narrator carries on with their next tale without a pause from the previous one. It isn't always entirely engaging but for the most part the parts of Metamorphoses included in The Serpent's Teeth are another very worthy addition to the Epics collection. ( )
  Malarchy | Jan 23, 2011 |
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