Of bodies changed to other forms I tell;
You gods, who have yourselves wrought every change,
Inspire my enterprise and lead my lay
In one continuous song from nature’s first
Remote beginnings to our modern times.
Thus begins Ovid’s Metamorphoses, his epic treatment of the creation of the world through the aspirations and entanglements of gods and humans up to his “modern times” in the 1st century C.E. These “metamorphoses” are mental as well as physical, involving love, deceit, violence, altruism, narcissism, sacrifice, and desire fulfilled and unfulfilled. His retellings—adaptations or “transformations”—from Greek and Roman mythology have served as inspiration for later artists, including Dante, Shakespeare, Ursula LeGuin, J.K. Rowling, and Marlon James.
More broadly, metamorphoses can involve the growth of an individual, cultural developments, gender construction (and deconstruction), landscapes (inner and outer), and climate change. They can be transformative in positive or negative ways, and sometimes the outcomes can be hard to interpret, especially for people undergoing changes themselves. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, dramatizes a gestational breakthrough that has terrible consequences (and spawned innumerable “progeny” and sequels). Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” depicts a bewildering change for Gregor Samsa—but a potential new life for his sister, Grete. And every story—fiction or nonfiction, those of others or our own—dramatizes the conflicts of humans struggling with gods, nature, human nature, social restrictions, economic hardship, and mixed feelings.
For lovers of language and literature, metamorphoses are our objects of study and passion in the stories we read and write. And as students and teachers, you are undergoing constant transformations in perspective, goals, and understanding. When we gather for the Denver Convention in March 2021, we will celebrate the infinite variety of metamorphoses imagined in our reading and embodied in our lives.