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Literature

Wake, Siren Highlights Women’s Voices

The ancient Greek myths continue to inspire writers to the present day when it seems like practically every myth is being retold in a novel or film adaptation. Many retellings, in recent years, have focused on the female characters and telling the story from the female point of view. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, already a retelling of ancient myths itself, was ripe for a 21st century retelling. Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung by Nina MacLaughlin presents the voices of the women in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as they claim their stories and challenge the power of myth.

Seductresses, she-monsters, nymphs, and demi-goddesses populate the famous myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But what happens when the story of the chase comes in the voice of the woman fleeing her rape? When the beloved coolly returns the seducer’s gaze? When tales of monstrous transfiguration are sung by those transformed? In voices both mythic and modern, Wake, Siren revisits each account of love, loss, rape, revenge, and change. It lays bare the violence that undergirds and lurks in the heart of Ovid’s narratives, stories that helped build and perpetuate the distorted portrayal of women across centuries of art and literature.

Drawing on the rhythms of epic poetry and alt rock, of everyday speech and folk song, of fireside whisperings and therapy sessions, MacLaughlin, the acclaimed author of Hammer Head, recovers what is lost when the stories of women are told and translated by men and breathes new life into these familiar myths.

The book draws the reader in from the very first chapter as the well-known story of Daphne unfolds. The characters and plots of the myths recounted here are compelling in unexpected ways, bringing a fresh perspective and challenging readers to question the ways in which the myths have been presented in the past and through the centuries.

MacLaughlin began writing the book in late February 2018 when she had “been dipping into The Metamorphoses” as she did “from time to time” and decided to rewrite the Callisto myth as a writing exercise. The resulting book, which took MacLaughlin three months to write, is impressive and a must read for fans of retellings of the myths.

For those unfamiliar with The Metamorphoses, the Latin narrative poem is considered the Roman poet Ovid’s greatest work. With 11,995 lines, 15 books, and over 250 myths, the poem recounts the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. While it does meet the standard for epic poetry, The Metamorphoses utilizes such a variety of themes and tones that make it difficult to classify in one simple genre.

One of the most influential works of literature, The Metamorphoses inspired, among others, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare. Several of the passages also inspired artists in various media including painting, sculpture and music. The first English translation was by William Caxton in 1480.

Ovid himself was drawing on a Hellenistic tradition of writing a collection of metamorphosis myths based on pre-existing metamorphosis poetry. As American academic Karl Galinsky noted in his 1975 book, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects, “Ovid’s relation to the Hellenistic poets was similar to the attitude of the Hellenistic poets themselves to their predecessors: he demonstrated that he had read their versions… but that he could still treat the myths in his own way.”

In Wake, Siren, MacLaughlin continues that tradition of treating the myths in her own way, and has created an entertaining and thought-provoking work.

Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung by Nina MacLaughlin is available online and in bookstores.

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