Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Generally used name for the Latin poet Publius Ovidius Naso (43BC-circa AD17). Born in Sulmona, he early established himself among the Roman gentry, then turned single-mindedly and prolifically to writing; most of his copious work has survived.

His importance to fantasy rests chiefly on two works of his middle age. Fasti ["Festivals"] (circa AD8; part rev circa AD15) is either uncompleted or partly lost. We have six books, each surveying the Roman sacred Calendar for a single month. In using the elegiac metre, Ovid imitated his presumed Greek model, Callimachus's Aitia (see Greek and Latin Classics); but he retained much of the highly personal tone specific to Latin elegy, tending to vitiate the myths even in this, his most respectful treatment of them.

The Metamorphoses of Ovid (written circa 1-8AD; trans Arthur Golding as The XV Books of P. Ovidius Naso, entytled Metamorphosis 1565-1567 UK; 20th-century trans A E Watts 1954 US with illus dating drom 1931 by Pablo Picasso; Horace Gregory 1958 US; newest trans Allen Mandelbaum 1993 US), Ovid's longest work, also bears the form of a handbook, though this time in epic metre and with epic's greater distance. Not reverence, however: no other ancient epic, certainly, begins with an invocation to the poet's own soul. The poem's topic is Metamorphosis, and (despite occasional bows to science or history) primarily the Transformations of the characters of Myth into birds, trees, etc. These stories are told so sweetly that the gradual revelation of the author's basic chill comes as an increasing shock; though Love is ever-present in the Metamorphoses, it very often means rape. The epic begins with the creation and ends with the Emperor Augustus, and remains consistently narrative; its first few digressions fit Callimachus's aesthetic unexceptionally. But the digressions multiply and intertwine, seemingly endlessly, until one can read only in constant awareness of the author's interventions. His open scepticism makes this a founding work of Fantasy.

Metamorphoses is, in any event, one of the most influential works in Western literature. It is at once the most comprehensive account of Latin Mythology and a feat of fictional construction which taught innumerable later writers, among them Chaucer and Dante. In the shorter term, Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Publius Papinius Statius learned much from Ovid's style – the supplest in Latin literature, capable of rendering any mood or thought in its smooth flow – while turning his insouciant fictional voice toward now more familiar forms, the fictional mood of Horror or the fictional world of Genre Fantasy. [JB]



This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.