Transformation in Weston and Ovid

The clearest connection I can see between The Medicine Man chapter of From Ritual to Romance, “Tiresias” and “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” is that of the act of transformation. In each of these readings, one can identify serious, life-altering transformations that occur to central characters. In early fertility rituals, Weston discusses the role of the doctor or medicine man which was “restoring to life or health the slain, or suffering, representation of the Vegetation Spirit” (99). She draws a clear relationship between the role of this medicine man healing a vegetation spirit with Sir Gawain (or another knight) healing the ailing King and therefore restoring his lands to fruitfulness and/or peace. The transformation in this case is that from illness or death to health or life and the transformation of the specific character results in the renewed health of the land. There is also the transformation Weston argues of a doctor character in early Grail legends into the character of Gawain.

The transformations that mark “Tiresias” are even clearer. Through his own choice in disrupting the mating snakes, he is changed into a woman then later back into a man. This transformation is clearly a serious one as it makes Tiresias an entirely unique character with knowledge of the world not even possessed by gods. His settling of the bet between Jove and Juno also leads to his transformation in the sense that he loses his sight and gains the ability to foretell the future. The transformations in “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” could be seen as merely the transformation into birds. However, throughout the poem, characters are described as changing metaphorically as a result of the tragic circumstances. For example, when she is trapped and abused by Tereus, Philomela “shivered like a little frightened lamb, / mauled by a grizzled wolf” and when Procne chooses her revenge on Tereus, “she pounced on Itys, like / a tigress pouncing on a suckling fawn” (137; 141). Therefore, all three of these texts are marked by the causes and effects of transformation.

This theme relates to The Waste Land through the transformation of the landscape into brown, occasionally abandoned and occasionally filled with zombie-style commuters, wasted cities. And the transformation of the youth into a generation marked and defined by death.


2 thoughts on “Transformation in Weston and Ovid

  1. My reading of the texts has led me to the exact same conclusions that you have already made, so it would be odd for me to just re-word what you’ve written. Instead, I’ll “second” your eloquent post and elaborate on the connections you’ve made with The Waste Land.

    I agree that one could read the wasteland that Eliot describes as a place that has been transformed into a physical and moral desert. But perhaps also this theme of transformation could be considered the end goal of The Waste Land, rather than solely something that has already happened. We’ve pointed out in class discussions time and time again about the failure of nature or society to “complete the natural cycle.” The wasteland is a place that has died, like our friend Adonis, but is failing to come back to life like it is supposed to: “He who was living is now dead // We who were living are now dying” (Eliot 328-329). The world is desperate for transformation– something that seemed to happen so easily to Philomela and Tiresius– but cannot achieve it. Maybe Eliot is saying that transformation was easier in the classical and ancient worlds than in his modern one?

    I think this idea could be explored through a comparison of healers in Weston and Eliot. In Weston, as you’ve pointed out in your quote on pp. 99, the healer is an agent of beneficent transformation. But the only healer we see in The Waste Land is the complete opposite of the kind that Weston describes in regards to the grail quests: the “chemist” that gives Lil abortion pills (Eliot 161). First, this healer prevents life from coming into the world. This is a rather stark contrast from the healer of the grail myths, and indicates a rejection of the life cycle. Second, Lil herself seems to undergo a transformation at the hands of the doctor, albeit not a good one. She says she’s “never been the same” since she took the abortion pills (Eliot 161-162). Indeed, her teeth are falling out and she looks “antique” at “thirty-one” (Eliot 156-157). In effect, the doctor has stalled the life cycle and turned a healthy person into a frail version of their former self, the exact opposite of the healer of the grail myth. I think Eliot is clearly showing us that something has gone awry in his modern world by juxtaposing these figures.

    In addition, there’s a large amount of male/female tension on page ten of The Wasteland (where I’ve been pulling quotes from) that is also present in our readings for Ovid. Lust and competition appear in both Ovid and Eliot, as well as the killing of the man’s child. Lil takes abortion pills and Procne kills Itys. I certainly don’t think these two actions are equivalent to each other, but many people do, and I’m sure Eliot did. Anyway, I haven’t been able to tie all of these slippery threads together in a way that makes sense, but they’re worth noting in case anyone would like to try.


  2. Braden, I am interested in the male/female tension that you bring up here. I can definitely see this tension as being one of the major links between The Waste Land, “Tiresias,” and “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” Weston’s discussion about a Medicine Man or Doctor is a little less clear to me on this point, but still, I think the large presence of tension is interesting.
    In “Tiresias,” the moment where he was transformed from a man to a woman is described as a “miracle!” (61). I almost would have expected it to be called a curse instead. Why was this transformation, from male to female, a good thing? Clearly Tiresias didn’t want to stay as a female, as he eventually switched back. Was it simply because he was then ‘blessed’ with a knowledge that no one else had? Clearly, too, there is a tension, between Jove and Juno, as they are arguing over which sex gets more pleasure out of lovemaking. What this an issue of power or dominance? Furthermore, does this question even matter, especially in reference to The Waste Land? The scene with Lil implies that both men and women desire sex about equally, as Lil’s friend is willing to destroy a friendship in order to get it, and Albert, seemingly, a marriage. We have in this scene, too, the matter of abortion, as previously mentioned. Eliot is clearly fascinated with this idea of improper fertilization, where something has been (in this case, intentionally) broken. Eliot doesn’t refer to Tiresias, however, until Part II, when he watches the affair between the clerk and the typist. Here too, there is a tension between the male and female. We see something akin to rape, where, “flushed and decided, he [the clerk] assaults at once; / Exploring hands encounter no defense; / His vanity requires no response, / And makes a welcome of indifference.” (239-242). This scene is like a much meeker version of what we see between Tereus and Philomela.
    In the rape of Philomela, we see the stark difference of power between the male and female. Tereus is charged to guard and protect his sister-in-law, as her father says (addressing Tereus), “I beseech you by your honor, by the ties / of family and by the gods above, / To guard her with a father’s love and send / Back soon… / The darling solace of my sombre age” (136-137). The male character here is associated with honor, strength, and familial loyalty. Philomela, on the other had, is helpless, “a virgin, all alone / …a little frightened lamb, / Mauled by a grizzled wolf and cast aside” (137). Philomela, the young female, is associated with weakness, dependency on men, innocence. Eliot mentions this rape in Part II, the same section that contains the mention of Lil and her abortion pills. What can we associate between this terrible rape (and subsequent murder of an innocent child), and the casual sex of Lil’s time? What was Eliot doing here?


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