By the time Ovid sat down to write The Metamorphoses in around the year 2 A.D., he had already established himself as one of Rome's most popular poets. Ovid's path to stardom paralleled that of many popular musicians, writers, and filmmakers today: he picked a genre – in his case, love poetry – and stuck to it, working at it and working at it until it was like putty in his hands. There's no question that the books Ovid wrote during this period are pretty amazing (we especially recommend the Heroides, a series of poems presented as letters from jilted mythological ladies to their deadbeat boyfriends and husbands). That said, they seem to have left him unsatisfied. What do you do with a handful of putty, anyway?
Something started to trouble Ovid. Even if he was top-of-the-heap as far as love poets were concerned, right beside him there was an even taller heap, with a different poet on top. This poet's name was Virgil, and the heap he sat on was called epic poetry. (If you want to know more about him, check out our Shmoop guide to the Aeneid.) "Arrrgh, that no good, stuck up Virgil," Ovid must have said to himself, "I'd love to show him a thing or two. But how? How?" Then he probably shouted, "I know: I'll write an epic of my own! But not just any old epic – no, this will be a new kind of epic. It won't be one long, boring story, but a collection of many little stories. And it'll be funny, too. I'll call it…Fifteen Books of Metamorphoses!" And with these words, he stuck that putty on the soles of his sandals, and started bouncing his way up the epic heap.
The great thing about Ovid's Metamorphoses is that it doesn't force you to "care" about it one way or the other. Think of anything you like doing – it could be sports or music, playing videogames, or collecting stamps. Now imagine that someone asks you, "Hey, why do you like doing X so much?" Chances are you won't have much of an answer for them – at least nothing better than "Uhh, I like to, that's why." Ovid's poem is like that. Its wild stories about transformations from one shape to another are so fun that your first reaction in reading it probably won't be to ask yourself weighty questions like "Hmm, I wonder what insights this ancient book offers into the structure of the cosmos, or the essence of existence, or the development of the human imagination?" It just so happens that Ovid's poem offers insights into all of these things – but you can think of the deeper levels as an added bonus.
Basically, the poem's answer lies in its central theme of Change, Transformation and Metamorphosis. For Ovid, the physical world is constantly changing, and so is human life (through birth and death, love, hatred, achievement, and failure). Most important, however, is Ovid's portrayal of the human imagination – not so much because of anything he says about it, but because of how he puts it into action. You'd be hard-pressed to find any other author, ancient or modern, who is so bursting with ideas about how to tell a story. (Shakespeare is another.)
Because of Ovid's amazing skill as a poet, his versions of countless Greek and Roman myths have become the inspiration for generations of later artists – in every medium. (Just check out our "Best of the Web" section, if you don't believe us.) What's ironic about this is that Ovid's treatment of these myths is anything but reverent; half the time you get the sense that he is playing around with the stories he inherited, or perhaps making up new stories as he goes along.
As a result, Ovid is really Western literature's great practical joker – the guy who tore all the pages out of an old encyclopedia and replaced them with entries written by himself. He may be pulling your leg, but at least you'll be in good company.