Tales from Ovid. Twenty-four Passages from the Metamorphoses.
Faber and Faber, London, 1997. 264p. Paperback. Spine some reading traces.'Tales from Ovid is made up of twenty-four passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses and grew out Hughes's translation of four tales for After Ovid, New Metamorphosis (1996), which was edited by M. Hofmann and J. Ladun. A late work in Hughes's oeuvre, it was greeted with popular and critical acclaim, winning the 1997 Whitbread Book of the Year and was adapted for the stage. Acclaimed in its own right 'Tales from Ovid' also illustrates Hughes's late preoccupation with myth during the writing of his final book of poems, 'Birthday Letters'. His lifelong interest in myth is well documented and is evident to anyone familiar with his writings and translations. Having studied English, anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge, Hughes would have known that the word 'myth' is derived from the ancient Greek mythos and that for the ancient Greeks and Romans mythos performed many vital functions in society. It explained the mystery of origins, birth and death, and offered coherent explanations for the objects and mechanisms in the objective world. It provided a dramatic form for the intangible inner-world of instinct, desire and emotion, and offered a stage upon which traditional values could be celebrated or challenged. (...) Hughes considered myths as our ancestors' earliest attempts to civilise the archaic powers of instinct and feeling. He saw myths, in a Jungian sense, as an expression of a collective dream; the drama, images and symbols in myth drawing attention to the neglected parts of the tribe's psyche and restoring the balance in its psychic life. Like the dreamer, the audience of myth is not simply presented with objective facts and argument but becomes involved subjectively in a theatre that affects his entire imaginative and visceral being. Myths were, to Hughes, a record of great visionary experiences, they told the story of the shaman poet's journey into the underworld of the unconscious to gather its healing energies (the images and symbols of myth) to heal himself and his tribe. He saw myths as a record of the relationship between the subjective and the objective worlds and believed that each variant and adaptation of a particular story as a record of the imaginative life of the author, and of his era. (...) It is not always clear why Hughes chooses particular myths and rejects others in 'Tales from Ovid'. The story of 'Niobe', for example, which he does include, is, for the most part, little more than a catalogue of the violence inflicted on Niobe's fourteen children after she offends Leto. Hughes's interest in Niobe’s story appears to relate to his own dramatic role in Birthday Letters, in which he presents himself as a victim of Fate being punished by the accusing Goddess that confronts him in Plath's poems. Hughes has been criticised for his Fatalistic vision in Birthday Letters but, in his subjective mythopoeia, Fate and the gods only impose their demands on the individual’s will to the same extent that the unconscious parts of the psyche impose their demands on the conscious individual. (...) In writing 'Tales from Ovid' Hughes rediscovers the mythic materials to make sense of his own subjective experiences. The nature of his adaptations of Ovid's myths illustrates the way he shaped these stories into a drama that reflected the Goddess myth he knew from Robert Graves's The White Goddess. (ANDY ARMITAGE Ted Hughes Society).