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Metamorphosis and Metaphor: Why Models of Transformation in Fiction Matter

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

I've been thinking a lot recently about personal transformation, and how the concept is reflected in fiction. This is possibly because everything I'm consuming and producing at the moment seems to be transformative, but I'd argue that all stories are about change if you look closely enough, personal or otherwise. After all, what's the point of a story in which there's no character development?

Nonetheless, personal transformations seem to be everywhere at the moment: superheroes, vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, magic and makeovers in every medium all presenting us with different models and ideals.

So here's the news: they're nothing new. And I'm not talking old-school Stan Lee, or George Bernard Shaw, or even Bram Stoker. I'm talking about the Classics. That's right, I'm going there.

In this blog series (to which this post is both an introduction and table of contents), I'll take a scattergun approach to analysing metamorphosis in fiction ancient and modern. I'll also ramble a little about how I think those depictions shape our own transformations.

It's going to get messy.


Why Read the Classics?

Metamorphosis was a preoccupation of Classical writers.

To me, these stories are always relevant, because metamorphosis is really about identity. Physical changes require us to reassess and restate our internal identities, and emotional or mental changes often spur us to make physical transformations. Inside and outside are inextricably linked. One frequently represents the other in fiction, in a way that also reflects the attitude of the society at the time. This makes transformation stories rightly fascinating.

You may be aware of the Roman author Ovid's Metamorphoses (which inspired Shakespeare, Dante and Chaucer, amongst others), but he wasn't the only ancient author who wrote about transformations. His Metamorphoses isn't even the only book we have with that title; we also have extant the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (born around AD 125 we think, some 100 years after Ovid died), which is the only Roman novel that has survived in its entirety. We've got a few ancient Greek ones too. For those who may still be suffering from the sanitised 80s BBC version of the Classical world, they really aren't what you'd expect. (Have you seen Clerks II? The bit with the donkey? Yeah, well, that. If you haven't seen it, I advise you not to go Googling.)

The metamorphoses those stories depict, and which are echoed and built upon in modern fiction, cover a huge spectrum of real life. They are metaphors for the discovery of identity, for the 'makeover' effect, and also for the externalisation of something internal (whether that is something physical, emotional, mental or a combination of the three). That breadth means these stories have a permanence to them that allows even millennia-old mythologies to retain their resonance today.


Why now?

With today's increasing awareness of the spectrum of gender and sexuality, now is an important time to discuss the influence of these transformation models on us as individuals and together as an emerging global society. My reasons for believing this are threefold:

1. If we can identify the tropes that shape our ideals and, where appropriate, discard them, then maybe we can each inform how we build our own identities (which sounds like mumbo jumbo, but I'll explain more next week when I talk about makeovers);

2. We can take advantage of fiction to put ourselves in other people's shoes, and try to empathise with the struggles of those whose internal and external identities are at odds with each other (because fiction is about learning empathy); and

3. Finally, by looking back to see how transformative depictions of identity have changed over time, we can chart social attitudes and (I think) see things changing for the better.

Also, these stories are fun. I really can't emphasise that enough. Basically, the explanation above is a highfalutin excuse to write about stories I love, and talk about them in a pseudo-academic way. With swearing.


Table of Contents

I break down depictions of metamorphosis into seven arbitrary categories (which do overlap, and I reserve the right to make up more later). Those categories describe the underlying metaphor of the personal transformation.

1. Makeover - A superficial change which conforms to an ideal, revealing a lot about cultural identity but nothing about individual identity.

2. Revelation - A change effected by the individual that represents an acceptance and externalisation of an internal quality.

3. Reflection - A change usually effected by a third party that causes an internal quality of the subject to be reflected externally.

4. Reinvention - Iterative changes by which an individual attempts to locate an identity that fits.

5. Rejuvenation - A renewing change that restores something lost, whether external or internal.

6. Armour - A temporary and superficial change that imbues power to the transformed individual.

7. Augmentation - A significant change that magnifies an existing quality (usually some form of power).

And then there are some particular metamorphoses around which specific genres have developed (often from classical roots), and which vary in metaphorical intention, but which are so rich that I think they bear separate examination:

8. Gender

9. Apotheosis

10. Vampires

11. Zombies

12. Werewolves

13. Witches

14. Animals

15. Superheroes

So, I'm going to take a closer look at each one of these 15 metamorphoses (probably not in the order set out above). I'll be throwing in ancient mythology and novels (Greek and Roman), modern fiction (TV, film, theatre and novels), fairytales and pop culture observations, then mixing them all up with the lessons I take from them, good and bad.

It's going to be a weird ride, so hang on to your hats.

Coming up: Makeovers


I graduated from St Hilda's College, Oxford, with an MA in Literae Humaniores (Classics) in 2006, and subsequently converted to law. I write novels about vampires and lost civilisations, with a sprinkling of Latin and Ancient Greek.

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