An introduction to Tales from Ovid

Andy Armitage explores how Ted Hughes's beliefs about myths shaped his Tales from Ovid, and how his adaptation of a classical work can be read alongside his intensely personal last volume of poetry, Birthday Letters.

Tales from Ovid is made up of 24 passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and grew out of Hughes’s translation of four tales for After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (1996), which was edited by M Hofmann and J Lasdun. A late work in Ted Hughes’s oeuvre, it was greeted with popular and critical acclaim, winning the 1997 Whitbread Book of the Year and was later adapted for the stage.[1][2]

Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes, with some autograph corrections

Red front cover with medieval illustration of two figures, from Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes, Faber edition

Tales from Ovid was published by Faber & Faber in 1997.

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Acclaimed in its own right, Tales from Ovid also illustrates Hughes’s late preoccupation with myth during the writing of his final book of poems, Birthday Letters. His lifelong interest in myth is well documented, and is evident to anyone familiar with his writings and translations. Having studied English, anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge, Hughes would have known that the word ‘myth’ is derived from the ancient Greek mythos, and that for the ancient Greeks and Romans mythos performed many vital functions in society. It explained the mystery of origins, birth and death, and offered coherent explanations for the objects and mechanisms in the objective world. It provided a dramatic form for the intangible inner world of instinct, desire and emotion, and offered a stage upon which traditional values could be celebrated or challenged.

These days the term ‘myth’ is most commonly understood as a synonym for falsehood, a widely held false belief, a fiction, a delusion. But for Homer and the early Greek poets, mythos meant literally ‘words’, and signified ‘a pleasing arrangement of words’ in a literary sense. Plato considered mythos to be an art of language alongside, and including, poetry; it was a persuasive type of discourse that contained its own particular kind of intuitive ‘truth’. Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, in his Poetics, offered another useful definition of mythos. He made a distinction between two Greek terms that both meant ‘words’: mythos and logos; associating logos with the ‘story’ – the facts and history that are treated by the play; and mythos with the dramatic treatment of the facts – the artistry, plot and the revealed truth. Aristotle believed that the poet’s role was to unveil the ‘higher’, ‘universal’ truths of experience that objective, historical accounts could not provide. The poet’s role was not to report an event as it happened in objective reality, but to make sense of an event, or a series of events (i.e. a story), and to provide these events with meaning and significance.

Hughes considered myths as our ancestors’ earliest attempts to civilise the archaic powers of instinct and feeling. He saw myths, in a Jungian sense, as an expression of a collective dream; the drama, images and symbols in myth drawing attention to the neglected parts of the tribe’s psyche and restoring the balance in its psychic life. Like the dreamer, the audience of myth is not simply presented with objective facts and argument but becomes involved subjectively in a theatre that affects their entire imaginative and visceral being. Myths were, to Hughes, a record of great visionary experiences; they told the story of the shaman poet’s journey into the underworld of the unconscious to gather its healing energies (the images and symbols of myth) to heal himself and his tribe. He saw myths as a record of the relationship between the subjective and the objective worlds, and believed that each variant and adaptation of a particular story aas a record of the imaginative life of the author, and of his era.

Manuscript draft reviews by Ted Hughes, for books on Shamanism and Wilfred Owen

Page from a typescript book review by Ted Hughes, for a book on Shamanism

Ted Hughes explores the role of the shaman poet in this draft of a book review, c. 1963.

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Keith Sagar has suggested that Tales from Ovid and Birthday Letters are not among the main body of Hughes’s achievement because ‘neither allowed Hughes the total imaginative freedom his greatest work needed, each being Hughes’s treatment of already existing material... In both works the plot was predetermined’.[3] We could dismiss Shakespeare’s plays on the same grounds, and should not underestimate the poetry in these works where Hughes manipulates and combines pre-existing materials in order to create something original. Such works are better understood in Aristotelian terms: as mythos rather than as logos.

In his introduction to Tales from Ovid, Hughes described the author of Metamorphoses as being ‘of little use’ as a guide to the historic, original forms of the myths. Ovid is an ‘adaptor’ who only takes up the stories which ‘catch his fancy’, and who engages with each story only to the extent that it ‘liberates his own creative zest’.[4] In Tales from Ovid Hughes too is an adaptor and, as we will see, his late interest in the adaptation of myth relates to the poetic he employs in Birthday Letters.

In his essay ‘Myth and Education’, Hughes argued that myths are a particular kind of story that contain cathartic psychic properties – an image, or a symbol, or drama – that reunites our inner world’s subjective chaotic energies with our conscious life:

A story that engages, say, earth and the underworld … contains not merely the space and in some form or other, the contents of these two places; it reconciles their contradictions in a workable fashion and holds open the way between them.[5]

Myths, then, are stories that provide a vision of our inner and outer worlds in balance; they are the narrative equivalent of the mandala. The meanings derived from myths have, over history, been called divine, religious, mystical, or, as Hughes commonly called them, ‘visionary’. And for Hughes this visionary quality is what all great art, and poetry in particular, aspires to:

The character of great works is exactly this: that in them the full presence of the inner world combines with and is reconciled to the full presence of the outer world. And in them we see that the laws of these two worlds are not contradictory at all; they are one all-inclusive system; they are laws that somehow we find it all but impossible to keep, laws that only the greatest artists are able to restate.[6]

Myths are great stories that endure because, in reconciling the demands of the inner and outer worlds, they cure their audience. We recognise this quality in these works and often call it ‘beauty’.

Hughes suggested that stories are ‘units of imagination’ that unconsciously combine with other stories and experiences to help us to make sense of our inner and outer realities. They are autonomous in the sense that they do not require our wakeful intervention to reconcile themselves to one another and work out their conclusions. Hughes argued that the sudden achievements of classical Athens emerged from the imaginative effort to reconcile an unprecedented clash of mythologies from neighbouring tribes and countries. He also suggested a similar epiphany can take place within the imagination of an individual, claiming ‘the head that holds many stories becomes a small early Greece’.[7]

It is not always clear why Hughes chooses particular myths and rejects others in Tales from Ovid. The story of ‘Niobe’, for example, which he does include, is, for the most part, little more than a catalogue of the violence inflicted on Niobe’s 14 children after she offends Leto. Hughes’s interest in Niobe’s story appears to relate to his own dramatic role in Birthday Letters, in which he presents himself as a victim of Fate being punished by the accusing Goddess that confronts him in Plath’s poems. Hughes has been criticised for his fatalistic vision in Birthday Letters, but, in his subjective mythopoeia, Fate and the gods only impose their demands on the individual’s will to the same extent that the unconscious parts of the psyche impose their demands on the conscious individual.

In writing Tales from Ovid Hughes rediscovers the mythic materials to make sense of his own subjective experiences. The nature of his adaptations of Ovid’s myths illustrates the way he shaped these stories into a drama that reflected the Goddess myth he knew from Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. This is clear, for example, in Hughes’s treatment of the tale of ‘Actaeon’. As we know, in this myth, the hunter Actaeon offends the Goddess Diana when he stumbles into a clearing and inadvertently gazes upon her bathing naked. Hughes follows Ovid in suggesting Actaeon’s crime was one of fortune:

Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.[8]

The White Goddess by Robert Graves

Front cover to The White Goddess by Robert Graves, with an illustration of birds, a snake, human figures and symbols

Ted Hughes learnt of the Goddess myth from Robert Graves's The White Goddess (1948), which he was given a copy of at the age of 18 by John Fisher, a favourite teacher.

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However, Hughes’s description of Actaeon as having lost his way ‘in a dark wood’ is not from Ovid but from the beginning of Dante’s Inferno. And so Hughes suggests here that Actaeon’s death and dismemberment are the necessary ordeal that guarantees his rebirth. Actaeon’s fate becomes part of a journey that will lead him through Hell to Paradise and the Goddess (in Dante’s vision the Goddess appears as Beatrice). Unlike Ovid, Hughes links Actaeon with the sacred king of The White Goddess who is ritually murdered (sometimes wearing antlers) as the tribe’s scapegoat following an encounter, which is often sexual, with the Goddess. To Hughes’s imagination, the myths of Actaeon and Diana, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Venus and Adonis are all in themselves adaptations of the same story in which the hero ‘dies’ in order to undertake his journey into the underworld and recover his lover, the Goddess, his Muse.

In his essay ‘Regenerations’ Hughes pointed out that dismemberment is a necessary initiation ritual for the shaman. As a psychic drama, the dismemberment of the hero symbolises the obliteration and death of the ego that must occur before the poet can find his true voice. Consequently, in Birthday Letters Hughes depicts Plath, like Actaeon, as suffering dismemberment in the collection’s penultimate poem ‘The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother’. In the final poem of Birthday Letters she too is reborn in the healing image proffered in the final lines of the final poem ‘Red’.

In a letter to Keith Sagar, Hughes said that when he first considered writing about his relationship with Sylvia Plath he had initially rejected the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice as being ‘too obvious an attempt to exploit my situation’.[9] Although he did not include these myths in Tales from Ovid, he did finally exploit them in his dramaturgy of healing in Birthday Letters. The healing image in the final lines of Birthday Letters is anticipated by the final lines of Tales from Ovid. ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ tells the tragic tale of two young lovers separated by death and concludes with an image of reunion:

And the two lovers in their love-knot,
One pile of inseparable ashes,
Were closed in a single urn.[10]

The selection, arrangement and adaptation of Ovid’s myths in Tales from Ovid suggests that in the process of translating these tales Hughes found the way to provide a healing shape to the most tragic events in his own life. As he says in the introduction, Ovid’s characters are just ordinary people whose passionate experiences lead them to stumble out into a ‘mythic arena’.[11] In Ovid this transition from the quotidian to the mythic is represented through the symbol of metamorphosis.

The examples of Proteus and Eris show us that not all of the metamorphoses in Tales from Ovid are divinely ordained, and that some characters ‘have a facility / For changing themselves as they please’.[12] The poet has this power of metamorphosis, and Hughes saw the same transformation of the quotidian into the mythic in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems, a point that he repeatedly alerts readers to in Birthday Letters.

Diane Middlebrook pointed out in Her Husband ‘Ted and Sylvia stumbled into each other’s power to transform mere human beings into characters in a myth’.[13] This metamorphosis in Plath’s poetry is evident as early as in her poem ‘Pursuit’, written after her first meeting with Hughes at the St Boltoph’s party, and in which she portrays him as a black panther stalking her down. Middlebrook has noted that ‘Pursuit’ ‘has little to do with [Hughes] ... and everything to do with the glorious pursuit of a metaphor: lust as a panther’.[14] Hughes responds to this poem in ‘Trophies’ by describing the hairs rising on the back of his hands as he reads Plath’s journals of this period, indicating how he has succumbed to Plath’s metamorphosis ‘as if he were a character in one of Ovid’s tales, and she one of the goddesses able to elicit from a man his expressive beast form – such as Diana, in the myth of Actaeon’.[15]

Metamorphosis is not simply achieved through poetry; it seems to be the very essence of poetry, which, after all, fundamentally defamiliarises objects, situations, events and people – usually through metaphor or simile. With this in mind we see that the metamorphoses that occur in Tales from Ovid are as much a part of the treatment of the drama as the drama itself. In ‘Hercules’ the poisoned hero cries out that he has become ‘a leaf in a burning forest’;[16] in ‘The Death of Cygnus’ Achilles is described as ‘groaning with anger / Like the bull that pivots in the arena’;[17] in ‘Arachne’ the weaver ‘reared like a cobra’ at Minerva;[18] and Pentheus’s mother becomes ‘Like a bear defending her cubs’[19] as she dismembers her own son in the tale of ‘Bacchus and Pentheus’.

Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes, with some autograph corrections

Page 175 from Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes

‘She reared like a cobra, scowling’: a moment of metamorphosis in ‘Arachne’.

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Metamorphosis is also a symptom of translation. In his essays, Hughes argued for ‘literal’ translation over adaptations. As his editorial comments in the first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation indicate:

The type of translation we are seeking can be described as literal, though not literal in a strict or pedantic sense ... as soon as devices extraneous to the original are employed for the purpose of recreating its ‘spirit’, the value of the whole enterprise is called into question ... ‘imitations’ like Robert Lowell’s, while undeniably beautiful, are the record of the effect of one poet’s imagination on another’s.[20]

Despite these comments, as Daniel Weissbort has pointed out, Hughes's translations often created works that were ‘unmistakably “Hughesian”’.[21] This is certainly the case with Tales from Ovid. Comparing Hughes’s translation with Ovid’s original, or with more literal English translations, it is clear that, in spite of Hughes’s respect for Ovid’s original tales, where events in the narrative trigger his preoccupations, they become truly Hughesian.

In ‘Creation; Four Ages; Flood; Lycaon’, for example, Ovid describes the peaceful humanity of the Golden Age as having no need for shields or swords. In Hughes’s translation, he takes these metonymic trinkets of war and sets them to work together dramatically (‘No sword had bitten its own / Reflection in the shield’),[22] providing the objects with a very idiosyncratic vitality.

Furthermore, when Hughes describes the Golden Age as an era that ‘understood and obeyed / What had created it’ and in which ‘man kept faith with the source’,[23] in replacing Ovid’s gods with ‘the source’ he imposes a Jungian explanation for Ovid’s comments about humanity’s separation from its gods. In Hughes’s Golden Age man begins to identify wholly with his ego, completely neglecting his imprisoned inner life: ‘The inward ear, attuned to the Creator, / Is underfoot like a dog’s turd’.[24] And by the Age of Iron, humanity has become completely estranged from its inner life, having become ‘deaf / To the intelligence of heaven’.[25]

‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ provides some of the highlights of Hughes’s translation, but when his interest fails, his poetry falls flat and loses its energy. For example, when he translates Ovid’s dismissal of the unnecessary background to the lovers’ predicament:

For angry reasons, no part of the story,
The parents of each forbade their child

To marry the other.[26]

However, later in the same tale, when the lioness approaches Thisbe as she awaits Pyramus, alone by the mulberry tree, Hughes engages with the animal’s vitality and transforms Ovid’s narrative into a compelling drama. (In the comparative examples that follow Brookes More’s literal translation (1922)[27] appears first and Hughes’s second.)

Hughes’s translation is compelling because of his sympathy with Thisbe’s subjective miscomprehension of what she sees, as her imagination transforms the approaching lion into a ‘strangely hobbling dwarf’. Hughes’s lioness is a more grotesque and alien beast than that in Ovid’s original tale, and we can detect a shadow of the jaguar of Hughes’s earlier poems in its ‘rippling shoulders’ and ‘hanging belly’.[28]

Ovid’s Arcadian tales about magical animals and hunters are full of the vitality that Hughes sought after in many of his poems, and the animals haunt his translation even where they are absent in the original. In the following passage from ‘Echo and Narcissus’, for example, Hughes likens Echo’s obsession for Narcissus to the hunger of a starving wolf, while maintaining Ovid’s original concluding image of passion as a dangerous conflagration:

One day, when she observed
Narcissus wandering in the pathless woods,
she loved him and she followed him, with soft
and stealthy tread.The more she followed him
the hotter did she burn, as when the flame
flares upward from the sulphur on the torch. (Book 3: 38590)

The moment Echo saw Narcissus
She was in love. She followed him
Like a starving wolf
Following a stag too strong to be tackled.
And like a cat in winter at a fire
She could not edge close enough
To what singed her, and would burn her.[29]

Similarly, when Echo is rejected by Narcissus the pain and humiliation of her suffering that Ovid describes, becomes, in Hughes’s translation, something more deadly, urgent and beyond the reach of reason, as the experience of a wounded animal:

Thus rejected she lies hid
in the deep woods, hiding her blushing face
with the green leaves; and ever after lives
concealed in lonely caverns in the hills.
(Book 3: 412416]

From that day
Like a hurt lynx, for her
Any cave was a good home.
But love was fixed in her body
Like a barbed arrow. There it festered
With his rejection.[30]

In Tales from Ovid we find that translation is a form of metamorphosis in which an original work is given a new form and vitality. As Susan Bassnett has pointed out, Birthday Letters can be understood as a translation of Plath’s work:

Translation … offers a continuation of life to an original text, enabling that text to reach a new generation of readers in another place and another time. The idea of translation as after-life, as continuation, perhaps even resurrection is a powerful one, and one that sees the activity as essentially life-enhancing. Hughes, in Birthday Letters, gives us a version of Plath’s life and writing that can truly be described as life enhancing, for he gives new life to her reputation, as a poet and as a human being.[31]

In Hughes’s late works myth and translation become an increasingly important poetic through which he contends with the significance and subjectivity of original stories and myths, creates new and original readings and challenges the roles of the protagonists, giving these often well-known stories a new life. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Tales from Ovid.

This article was first published by the Ted Hughes Society.


[1] Tim Supple and Simon Reade, Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid: Twenty Four Passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Play (London: Faber and Faber, 1999).

[2] Sixteen of the 24 stories from Tales from Ovid were read by Hughes and are available on compact disc. For details see here.

[3] Keith Sagar, The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes, 2nd ed. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), p. x.

[4] Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), p. viii.

[5] Ted Hughes, ‘Myth and Education’, in Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 13839.

[6] Ibid. 150.

[7] Ibid. 141.

[8] Tales from Ovid, p. 105.

[9] Sagar, The Laughter of Foxes, p. 84.

[10] Hughes, Tales from Ovid, p. 254.

[11] Ibid. x.

[12] Ibid. 85.

[13] Diane Middlebrook, Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: A Marriage (London: Little Brown, 2004), p. 280.

[14] Ibid. 279.

[15] Ibid. 280.

[16] Hughes, Tales from Ovid, p. 159.

[17] Ibid. 169.

[18] Ibid. 175.

[19] Ibid. 198.

[20] Ted Hughes: Selected Translations, ed. by D Weissbort (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 200.

[21] Ibid. viii.

[22] Tales from Ovid, p. 9.

[23] Ibid. 8.

[24] Ibid. 12.

[25] Ibid. 13.

[26] Ibid. 246.

[27] This translation can be viewed alongside Ovid’s Latin here.

[28] Tales from Ovid, pp. 249250.

[29] Ibid. 76.

[30] Ibid. 77.

[31] Susan Bassnett, ‘Plath Translated: Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters’, in Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) p. 163.

  • Andy Armitage
  • Dr Andy Armitage is editor of The Modern Poetry website, poet and independent scholar living in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He has published poetry in the UK and in New Zealand (where he lived for several years). He is currently working on a study of Ted Hughes’s use of myth in Birthday Letters - ‘The Birthday Letters Myth’.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.