- Transforming Tales: Rewriting Metamorphosis in Medieval French Literature by Miranda Griffin
The title of Miranda Griffin’s study of transformation in medieval French literature is misleading—not that she does not deal with French medieval literature and the moralized adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Her book certainly does this with great acumen. However, she goes much further. Her book is a dense, complex, and enlightening theoretical study about the significance of transformation for writing, identity formation, gender relations, and philosophy.
Griffin’s book focuses primarily on how the fourteenth-century Ovide moralisé influenced in one way or another a number of fascinating medieval narratives that involve aspects of metamorphosis. Her book is composed of six chapters, each exploring various texts that are related to physical and metaphysical transformation. In Chapter 1 she argues that the anonymously written Ovide moralisé provides a means for understanding the truths of Christian history and doctrine. In Chapter 2 her primary interest is in one tale, “Narcissus and Echo,” because it sheds light on poetic production in French poetry in the Middle Ages and how voice became a figure for the impossible object of desire. Chapter 3, “The Beast Without,” and Chapter 4, “Sex and the Serpent,” are separate gender studies of the transformations between human and animal, and here Griffin applies the theories of Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben to grasp why the animal is always outside in certain tales and supports human [End Page 439] identity. The narratives she analyzes in Chapter 3 are thirteenth-century werewolf tales or lais, “Bisclarvet,” “Melion,” “Guillaume de Palerne,” and an episode from the romance cycle, Perceforest. In Chapter 4 she uses the work of Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler to understand the connection between the feminine and the serpent. Chapter 5 is dedicated to Merlin, whom Griffin considers “synonymous with transformation and hybridity throughout the Arthurian texts and cycles” in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (28). In her conclusion, “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On,” Griffin discusses Morpheus as a key figure in visual art that has inspired literary creativity that can only be understood if we appreciate how transformation is central to the way we live our lives and deliberate on our lives.
Although Griffin is meticulous in analyzing the specific elements of French medieval texts that emphasize an unusual concern with bodily and spiritual transformation, her particular explication of the texts must be understood as part of a larger conceptual and philosophical concern. Throughout the chapters in which she examines linguistic and philological elements pertaining to notions of metamorphosis, Griffin deftly interweaves the ideas and concepts of such French thinkers as Lacan, Derrida, and Kristeva as well as notions of the American Butler and the Italian Agamben to stress the relevance of medieval literature to our present modern thinking. As she states toward the end of her book, “It is via the effort, the attempt to visualize a human body becoming a plant or an animal or another human, and the attendant emotions, be those shock, enjoyment, fear, revulsion, or wonder, that the medieval and modern reader is prompted to think through his or her relation to embodiment and narrative. Our bodies and the stories we tell about ourselves are bound up with one another; this is the way in which both cultural and individual identity is created” (214).
Although Griffin does not directly address the significance of transformation in fairy tales, many of the works she discusses can be considered fairy tales or works that inspired fairy tales, and consequently her book is food for thought. There is a profound belief in magic and transformation that lies at the root of all folktales and fairy tales and how they have changed throughout the centuries. Griffin’s book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of an ancient epoch of storytelling that still touches us today. [End Page 440]
Jack Zipes is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. Recent publications include The Golden Age of...