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FANTASIC METAMORPHOSES, OTHER WORLDS: Ways of Telling the Self

By Marina Warner, published by Oxford University Press at £19.99. 282pp. HBk. ISBN: 0-19-818726-2 (Reviewed by David Taylor)

Based on her Clarendon lectures in English, Marina Warner approaches metamorphosis as a dynamic and vital principle of creation and evolution, beginning with Ovid's poem before moving on to the paintings of Bosch, the legends of the Tairo people, the life-cycle of the butterfly, the myth of Leda and the Swan and finally the work of Lewis Carroll. In fact Ovid's poem is a central theme in this book and its opening lines make it an ideal approach to start from: "My intention is to tell of bodies changed to different forms ". This sums up Warner's intention.

This is a rich and complex book, a scholarly approach to a difficult and fascinating subject. She examines how the hero/heroine in legend and modern fiction journeys through numerous ordeals, through misprisons and neglect, finally to arrive at selfhood transformed. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Kafka's book Metamorphosis, where the central character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a bug! She also examines Dante's fertile imagination in his Divine Comedy which provided artists with a wonderfully rich graphic range of metamorphic punishments, never more evident than Dante and Virgil's encounter with Arachne, transformed into a spider for boasting of her weaving skills. Elsewhere we encounter the legend of Lycaon who is turned into a werewolf for serving up a cannibal meal to Zeus. This theme of gods and heros transformed into beasts can also be seen in the work of the great philosopher Socrates who describes how a warrior called Er while in the underworld sees Orpheus chose the image of a swan, with Agamemnon choosing an eagle. All of these are wonderfully psychopompic images.

Perhaps the greatest psychopomp is the butterfly. Butterflies figure as souls in ancient Egypt, while Plato spoke of the winged soul in a famous passage in the Phaedrus. Pythagorean doctrine spoke of souls which migrated from one body to another.

Of most interest to readers of WD will be references to witches and shape-shifting. There are plenty here. On a more unusual note there is a reference to the Roman historian Pliny's account of how important it was to crack the shell of an egg after eating it in case witches used it to set sail in. This theme of hatching/eggs and metamorphosis is expertly portrayed in the wonderfully haunting paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and in particular his painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (1504). Here can be seen a whole universe of bird-headed demons and other world beings, devouring the sinful. When looking at this painting, I am always reminded of the words of the great German mystic, Eckhart, who saw the devils not ripping and torturing but ripping the soul free.

Although I found this a difficult book to get into and review, it is full of interesting ideas. Marina Warner's style of writing is not always easy to follow, but if you can look past some of this, you will find intellectual gems here.