BY SEAN CLARK
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever.]
If I found myself stranded on a desert island the one book I would want to be stuck with would be sprawling and epic. It wouldn’t tell one story, but many. That way I would always have on hand something to fit my mood. I’d want a living world and a variety of intangibles and ideas, not an unbreakable plot with a beginning, middle, and end to retrace ad infinitum. That book would be my one source of entertainment, of companionship, of inspiration and of escape. I’m not religious, but I almost picked The Bible.
That’s exactly the kind of book I’d need to survive. I read The Bible a lot when I was a kid. I loved the stories and the characters and the lessons. Even at a very young age though, I never thought of them as more than stories. I remember being weirded out by the few people at my Episcopal church that seemed to take the thing literally, it seemed to me they were missing the point. I first read Metamorphoses in college, and it grabbed me in a very similar manner. I’ve since read it in 3 different translations.*
Not quite as many people have been killed over it, but Ovid’s Metamorphoses is actually a very similar book to The Bible. This poem tells a story of a people, the Romans, through a depiction of their mythology. It begins in the ages of prehistory, with man sprung from clay, and extends all the way to the reign of Caesar. The stories run the gamut of themes and types. There are adventures and love stories, tales of war and of betrayal. There is a central theme, but sometimes there’s more than one telling of the same event; some stories don’t seem to connect to anything.
As the title implies, the book centers around transformations. In each vignette, characters undergo physical and metaphorical change. Sometimes it’s a god in an animal disguise (Jupiter hiding Io as a cow), or an act of punishment or vengeance (e.g. Arachne becoming a spider after defeating Minerva in a weaving contest). Daphne becomes a tree.
Hercules sheds his mortal half–his body–by sacrificing himself on a pyre as he succumbs to a brutal hydra poison. It’s a big moment that always grabs me; he becomes a giant god:
Meanwhile, all that the flames could ravage had been disposed of / by Vulcan. Hercules’ body no longer survived in a form / which others would recognize. Every feature he owed to his mother / had gone, and he only preserved the marks of his father Jupiter. / Just as a snake which has shed old age with its sloughed-off skin / will frolic in youthful freshness, its new scales brilliantly glinting / so when the hero of Tiryns discarded his mortal frame, / he gathered strength in his better endownment, he grew in stature, / and now was invested with majesty, weight, and an awesome authority.
Maybe sitting on that beach (can my island of solitude at least be tropical and temperate?) stories such as Hercules’s ascension to heaven would speak to me in some spiritual way. Or maybe I’d still just see it as badass and dramatically awesome. Would I start reading about Pythagoras over and over and flirt with following his teachings? And would the dark and harrowing story of Philomela and Procne still be my favorite?
It’s an ancient horror thriller: Philomela is kidnapped by her sister’s husband, King Tereus, and locked away in a forest hut where he rapes her and silences her by removing her tongue. She gets word to her sister, Procne, by weaving a tapestry. When she finds out, Procne goes ballistic and kills the son she bore with Tereus and feeds the boy to him without him knowing. Before he can kill the sisters, they are turned to birds–a nightingale and a swallow–then Tereus too becomes a bird: a hoopoe.
On that desert island, without an Internet, I would probably go insane not knowing what the hell a hoopoe is. I think I’d eventually come up with my own answer. I’d probably go insane anyway, but hopefully not until after I’d committed the book to memory, held an entire world inside my brain. I’d repeat it, and place myself in the stories. It’s what I would need to do to survive. Maybe that would keep me sane. Or maybe I’d transmogrify into a coconut and float away on the waves.
* (If you decide to read Metamorphoses, I recommend the Penguin edition, translated by David Raeburn. I find it to be the most accessible and least preachy. Here’s a sampling of the three most popular translations–or at least the ones I’ve read–from the same line from the myth “Creation” in Book 1:
Rolphe Humphries: “All other animals look downward; Man / Alone, erect, can raise his face toward Heaven.”
A.D. Melville: “Thus earth, once crude and featureless, now changed / Put on the unknown form of humankind.”
David Raeburn: “Thus clay, so lately no more than a crude and formless substance, / was metamorphosed to assume the strange new figure of Man.”
Humphries is the easiest to read, but he puts a lot of blatant Christian slant (“So Man was born…in God’s image”) in his translation which I think would have been better left out. Melville’s is the most poetic of the three, so poetry buffs might actually prefer this rendition. Raeburn is the the baby bear’s bed in a Goldilocks comparison: just the right balance between accessibility and poesy.)