Literary Fantasy Parcel, # 2: Metamorphoses


I’m almost finished with the holiday gift fuss.  I’m  assembling book parcels, tied up with a ribbon and tucked into  cotton bookstore bags.  Every year I organize my book parcels by theme, hoping a stack of themed books will entice readers.   I am happy if my friends read one or two of the two-to-three books in the parcel.  (See yesterday’s post.)

This year’s theme is “Literary Fantasy.”  Why?  It has been a strange year. Reading fantastic literature teaches us about our conscious and unconscious selves, and can make us see our world differently.   We are still mourning the election, and our society doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction.  And so let’s read some fantasy.

Literary Parcel, # 2:  Metamorphosis

Woolf penguin Orlando+cover1. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Orlando is one of Woolf’s lightest books, dedicated to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West. In Alexandra’ Harris’s Virginia Woolf, a wonderful short book about Woolf’s life and work, she says that Woolf’s teasing novel is a a fanciful biography of Vita Sackville-West, with a tip of the hat to her ancestors. And it had the tone of Woolf’s playful letters to Sackville-West. The hero, Orlando, is a beautiful androgynous man, a courtier, and an aspiring poet. He lives for more than three centuries, first as a man and then as a woman.  There’s too much whimsy in this fantasy for my taste, but Woolf’s writing is gorgeous, especially her description of a Renaissance winter festival on the frozen Thames. You can read my post on Orlando here.

2. Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ovid’s epic poem, a collection of Greek and Roman myths linked by the theme of metamorphosis, is the most brilliant fantastic comedy I have ever read.  As Ovid describes the clash between gods and ovid-metamorphoses-folio-mtsgoddesses, and their bizarre obliviousness and frequent violence toward human beings, we begin to understand our own reality and, beyond that, change and entropy.  We witness the extent of Ovid’s joyousness in his mythic exploration of metamorphosis in an imperfect world.  His style  is bubbly and elegant at the same time. His  descriptions of nature are charming and lovely, and his characters jump out of his vivid verbal sketches. There is much absurdity in Ovid:  Apollo, struck by Cupid’s arros, falls in love with the  nymph Daphne and asks her  to run a little slower so he can catch  her, but she prefers to turn into a tree than “marry” him, because she is a virgin dedicated to the goddess Diana.  At the same time as we laugh at Apollo, we imagine the nymph Daphne’s terror as she prays to her father, who tries to persuade her Apollo would be a good match.  In the end she turns into a laurel tree, which Apollo obnoxiously claims as his own.  So she gets away, but does she?

Here is an excerpt from Apollo’s comic complaint to Daphne

…But I, who follow,
Am not a foe at all. Love makes me follow,
Unhappy fellow that I am, and fearful
You may fall down, perhaps, or have the briars
Make scratches on those lovely legs, unworthy
To be hurt so, and I would be the reason.
The ground is rough here. Run a little slower,
And I will run, I promise, a little slower.
—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Rolfe Humphries


humphries-ovid_meta1Like Apollo, many of the gods are bullies and even rapists, but the goddesses can be equally violent: in the moving story of Ceres and Proserpina, Ceres punishes the world with drought as she searches the earth for her lost daughter.  She turns an insolent boy into an owl to vent her rage at a rude remark. Finally she learns that Hades, king of the Underworld, abducted Proserpina. Ceres appeals to Jove, who is Proserpina’s father, but he believes Hades is a good match for her.  Ceres brokers a deal whereby Proserpina lives half the year above ground (and that’s how we get spring and summer).

As Woolf in Orlando, Ovid is also fascinated by the blurring of gender and the sexes. The story of Tiresias is short and strange:  he sees two serpents mating and strikes them apart and then is turned into a woman for seven eyars; seven years later he sees them again and does the same thing so he can turn back into a man.  It does not end well:  Jove and Juno have argued about who has more sexual pleasure, men or women, and Tiresias says women do.  Juno, furious that he disagreed with her, blinds him as a punishment, but Jove tries to compensate by giving him the gift of prophecy. Some compensation, some of us would think.

Ovid understands the randomness of fate. A lucky, lucky reader will get this in her Christmas parcel.

The Passion of New Eve angela carter 51BAQglKXzL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_3. Angela Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve.  At the British Library, I saw the manuscript of Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve in a display case, and decided I wanted to read it.  A few blocks away at Skoob, a used bookstore, I found a copy.  I cannot pretend it is my favorite book by Carter, but it does fit in well with Orlando and Ovid.

In The Passion of New Eve, a surreal novel rich with symbolism and satire, she walks a fine line between feminism and tedium. In Carter’s mordant exploration of what it means to be female in a post-apocalyptic society, the ideal woman is defined by men in Hollywood, or by a cult of militant Earth-worshipping female plastic surgeons.

This novel is Carter’s homage to the myth of Tiresias, the Greek prophet who spent part of his life as a man and part as a woman. (Naturally, being a woman was best.) Well, the story is part Tiresias myth anyway: the rest is Caitlyn Jenner crossed with Charlie’s Angels.

You can read the rest of this post here.

Nothing in Common: Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest & Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

This is a catch-up post about two classics with nothing in common.

1.  Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (1953)

Richter pretty cover LIGHT_IN_FORESTSo many of us read The Light in the Forest in school.  Does it hold up?

Yes, it is an American classic.  Richter, who won the Pulitzer for The Town and the National Book Award for The Waters of Kronos, is famous for his novels about life on the frontier in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In The Light in the Forest, set in the eighteenth century, Richter relates the story of a white boy captured in an Indian raid in Pennsylvania.  Cuyloga, a warrior of the Lenni Lenape tribe, adopts John and renames him True Son.  He lives blissfully with his new family.  Ten years later, a treaty is signed, saying all the captives must be returned to their white families.  True Son is cruelly torn from his Indian family.

Richter movingly depicts True Son’s attachment to the beauty of the forest and the Lenni Lenape way of life.

He could see the great oaks and shiver-bark hickories standing over the village in the autumn dusk, the smoke rising from the double row of cabins with the street between, and the shining, white reflection of the sky in the Tuscarawas beyond.  Fallen red, brown and golden leaves lay over roofs and bushes, street and forest floor.  Tramping through them could be made out the friendly forms fo those he knew, warriors and hunter, squaws, and the boys, dogs and girls he played with.

On the long march, guarded by soldiers, True Son is accompanied by his  friend Half Arrow.  Little Crane, who walks with his white squaw (who will also be returned to her white family), reminds them that the Great Spirit made the Indians, with their black hair and dark eyes and skins. On the other hand, the whites, who are light, dark, or in-between, are “a mixed breed.” He says, “The reason they act so queer is because they’re not an original people.  Now we Indians are an original people.”

True Son, aka John, is unable to adjust to life with his white family. When John’s uncle murders White Crane, who has come in peace with Half Arrow to visit True Son, he and Half Arrow run away and take refuge in the forest.  Their time there  is idyllic:  “Abundance supported them.  Completeness was for the taking.  Days unfolded, rich and inexhaustible.”

But nothing is simple:  violence begets violence.   When the boys return to the Lenni Lenape, some insist on revenge for White Crane’s death, and Cuyloga, True Son’s father, reluctantly agrees.  Neither the whites nor Indians are completely innocent, though Richter leans towards the culture of the Indians.

A fascinating, heart-rending little gem of a book.

1.  Virginia Woolf’s Orlando:  A Biography (1928)

Woolf penguin Orlando+coverWoolf’s comic novel, Orlando, was a surprise when it was published in 1928 after To the Lighthouse.

Orlando is one of Woolf’s lightest books, dedicated to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.  In Alexandra’ Harris’s Virginia Woolf, a wonderful short book about Woolf’s life and work, she says that Woolf’s teasing novel is a a fanciful biography of Vita Sackville-West, with a tip of the hat to her ancestors.  And it had the tone of Woolf’s playful letters to Sackville-West. The hero, Orlando,  is a beautiful androgynous man, a courtier, and an aspiring poet.  He lives for more than three centuries, first as  a man and then as a woman.

Harris quotes Elizabeth Bowen, who In her 1960 preface to Orlando remembered,

This Orlando–we did not care for the sound of it. The book was, we gathered, in the nature of a prank, or a private joke; worse still, it was personal.”

Virginia woolf orlandoSome fans of Woolf’s abstract novels were put off by her whimsical portrait of Orlando, whom we first meet as a 16-year-old in the Elizabethan age .  “He–for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it–was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”  Slicing and beheading is not the usual way to begin a book, and in this first chapter there are many references to slicing and heads: Orlando’s father had struck the head from the shoulders of a pagan. And when Queen Elizabeth visits, the first thing she notices is Orlando’s head.  While his head is bowed, she strokes it.  And she invites him to her court.

As a  young man at Elizabeth’s court, Orlando has a doomed love affair with a beautiful Russian princess, whom he calls Sasha.  After a long winter festival, with Woolf’s fantastical descriptions of festivities and ice palaces on the frozen Thames, Sasha stands him up during a thaw and sails away on her ship with the gritty sailor she really loves.  Orlando, crushed, returns to his estate and works on his poem, “The Oak Tree.”   And when he invites Greene, a poet and comrade of Shakespeare and Marlowe, to visit and talk about poetry, Greene lambastes all the writers of his day.

Just as writers worry that Amazon will influence publishing, so Greene blames the booksellers for bad writing.  The Elizabethans cannot live up to the Greeks, he says.

Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell.  Shakespeare was the chief offender in this way and Shakespeare was already paying the penalty.  Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment.  Much though it hurt him to say it–for he loved literature as he loved his life–he could see no good in the present and had no hope of the future.  Here he poured himself a glass of wine.

Greene also satirizes Orlando’s poem and deeply wounds him. Orlando decides to go to Constantinople as an ambassador.  While there, he magically falls into a coma and becomes a woman.   Now she is Lady Orlando, and when she returns to London, there is a lawsuit to see whether she is indeed entitled to her property.  (It goes on for centuries.)  She is a hostess who entertains Pope and Dryden, though their wit seems dry, pursues her own poetry, adjusts to changes of weather in the nineteenth century and finally publishes her  poem, “The Oak Tree.”   In the twentieth century she has become a wife and mother.  And, after all this time, she is only 36.

I enjoyed this literary fantasy, which reminds me of some of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s whimsical novels, particularly The Corner That Held Them, a comic novel about a convent in the 12th century.