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Playing the Giant: Tristia 2 and Parody Redefined

Christine E. Lechelt

            Ovid is no giant.  It is true that at several places in the exilic works, he explicitly likens himself to one struck by a thunderbolt (e.g. Tr. 1.1.72, 81-2; 2.179-80; see Barchiesi, Evans, and Scott), and when combining the theme of the thunderstruck poet together with the references to Gigantomachy in Tristia 2, it is tempting to view Ovid in this poem as a giant fighting against Jupiter-Augustus.  Biographically, the metaphor works nicely, for the giants, like Ovid, were relegated to the furthest reaches of the earth for their insolence. However, Ovid insists that he bore no arma against Augustus, nor even any ill will (Tr. 2.51-6), and in Epistulae ex Ponto 2.2.9-14 he literally states that he is no giant.  Thus, the poet allows himself to be viewed as a giant even while denying that he is such.  Critics who have read Ovid straightforwardly as a giant caught in a battle against Jupiter-Augustus miss the force of this ambiguity.  One of the main themes of Tristia 2 is that people will find in any poem what they wish to see (Williams).   Ovid’s genius lies in his acknowledgment and manipulation of this truth.  The ambiguity over his status as a giant is one example of his technique: those who wish to see Ovid as giant may do so, and they will come away from the poem with a biographically correct image of poet and ruler.  But this is only part of the full picture.  To complete the image Ovid creates in this poem, we must step away from this equation to take a broader view of the giants as literary tradition and Ovid as the manipulator of that tradition.

            The topos of the Gigantomachy is routinely used to convey political themes (Hardie), but it also contains significant metaliterary potential.   In particular, as the ultimate epic topos (Innes), it embodies genus grande, a style of writing inherently opposed to elegy.  Also a myth about succession, gigantomachic imagery becomes shorthand for talking about one’s place within literary history.  This discussion often takes the form of parody.  In this paper I build on the work of recent parody theorists such as Hutcheon and Rose to demonstrate that Ovid uses parody not to ridicule his literary predecessors through exaggeration or incongruous juxtapositions (though these stylistic features may be present), but rather to create a critical distance which both aligns him with his predecessors and transforms the previous works from within.  The irony of parody is that it simultaneously employs and reinforces the tropes of a genre or author, thereby acknowledging and even strengthening the authority of the predecessor text(s), while distinguishing the parodist from those who came before him, establishing him as someone who can manipulate and exert authority over the tradition to the point of shaping its reception.  Ovid as parodist becomes a Janus figure, looking backward and forward at the same time and functioning as the portal to literary time.   He determines how readers will receive the past and at what point in literary history they will place his work, and has the power to influence the future of the genre.  In other words, his parody urges upon the reader a synchronic rather than diachronic view of literary history.

            Using this theoretical framework, I explain the references to Gigantomachy in Tristia 2 as part of a parody that meditates upon the intersections of the power and authority of politician and poet, author and reader. Through his transformation of the literary tradition, Ovid opens new avenues for poetic explorations of the nature of tradition, power, and immortality.

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Monsters and Giants

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