Marina Warner, Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Doubling the Self (Oxford University Press, 2002)
On her Web site, Marina Warner bills herself as a novelist and mythographer. A closer look at her bibliography shows that she has written -- and been published -- in the non-fiction genres of history, art criticism and literature on subjects as widely divergent as fairy tales, gender ideologies and the Ten Commandments. Not to mention two operatic libretti, several film scripts for British television, and a handful of novels and short stories. She has received numerous awards and recognition for all aspects of her writing, and holds a number of honorary degrees, patronages and scholastic positions. Warner is evidently both well read and prolific, and this bounty of knowledge is reflected in Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Doubling the Self, a published set of lectures she made at Clarendon College, Oxford University in 2001.
Metamorphosis has been a frequent topic in Warnerís writing -- "Metamorphosis, or Some Thoughts of a Former Bird," "Painted Devils and Aery Nothings: Metamorphoses and Magic Art," and "Riscritture/Re-Writings: Translations of Stories, Metamorphoses of Myth," among others. She begins this volume (and presumably the lectures) with a discussion and overview of Ovidís "Metamorphoses," using the poem to frame her foray into literary, artistic and religious transmogrifications. To simplify matters for her listeners and readers, Warner has divided the world of fantastic changes into four categories/chapters: Mutating, Hatching, Splitting and Doubling.
In the first chapter, "Mutating," Warner tackles the rather daunting task of drawing parallels between the creation myths of the Taino (formerly indigenous to Hispañola), Ovidís poem, Danteís Inferno and Hieronymous Boschís lushly detailed triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Her unifying theme? Human transmogrification -- Taino women born from trees, Danteís thieves morphing into snakes, Boschís human-bearing fruit (or is that fruit-bearing humans?), and a host of other examples. Warner shies away from decisively stating that any one of these works (or, in the case of the Taino, their myths) influenced the other, but more than adequately illustrates the human fascination with physical change, the world over.
Warner pulls forward discussion of Ovid and Bosch into the second chapter, "Hatching," linking these works with Apeuleiusí The Metamorphoses of Lucius, Or the Golden Ass, naturalist Maria Merianís Of the Metamorphoses of the Insects of Suriname, artistic renderings of the myth of Leda and the Swan, Kafkaís The Metamorphosis and Nabokovís butterfly imagery. Where fruit dominated the first chapter, this chapter emphasizes eggs (unsurprisingly), and in particular, insects. The theme remains constant: change, especially as illustrated by the life cycle of the butterfly (pupa to cocoon to winged beauty).
Next up is "Splitting," with its focus on zombies, genies and other trapped or lost souls. Most intriguing are her discussions of Lafcadio Hearnís (better know for his musings about Japan) Creole writings, and the 18th century London stagings of "Aladdin" and similar exotic stories. She makes a case that the trapped genies represent slaves, and the demon they serve Imperialism. The comparison seems somewhat forced (over-politicization of entertainment, perhaps), but is an intriguing one, nonetheless.
Warner ends the lectures with "Doubling," an exploration into Dopplegangers, "painted devils" on the stage, Jekyll & Hyde and early photography -- all manifestations of the "other self," twin or double.
For an academic work, Fantastic Metamorphoses is quite engaging and approachable, although Warner is overly fond of twenty-five cent words such as "prelapsian," which pepper the volume. Her breadth of knowledge is amazingly vast, and she uses it to good effect, giving the reader an opportunity to visualize mythic, artistic and religious commonalities across not just geographic space, but also time. Copious notes follow the lectures, providing a detailed bibliography for anyone interested in reading further. An excellent read for academics and casual readers alike.