With the growing number of performances related to Shakespeare this year, it is easy to come across A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Watching this play in my local theatre recently I inevitably started thinking about transformations in literature. I soon realized that many of my favourite literary works are actually transformation stories.
Let’s take a look back on the long history of western literature, arriving at Ovid’s Metamorphoses (a big influence on Shakespeare) we can see that it contains all the significant European transformation stories that have shaped our thinking throughout the ages. However, transformation stories are not exclusive to western literature. World mythology, from Chinese to Indian, Korean, Norse, Celtic, Native American and Mayan traditions all have a strong focus on transformation. And transformation is still big news: a quick look at cinema listings and best selling book lists show that superhereos in all their mutating forms are more popular than ever. No wonder our students love transformation stories. They have entertained and occupied our thinking for centuries. Transformation stories reveal a lot about our culture, philosophy, our own thinking and personality. They also put things in different perspectives and increase our imagination. On the other hand, metamorphosis is also a fascinating biological process, which means that it will fascinate our students with more scientific minds.
Can you name some of your favourite transformation stories? What do the human beings, animals and plants turn into? Why does this transformation happen? Are there any other works which use the same myths?
Before we build up a list of stories, let’s quickly define what can be considered a story of metamorphosis or transformation. After our recommended list of books, we are going to look at language activities which will help your students think, talk, write about transformations in English.
The word ‘metamorphosis’ was introduced English in the late Middle Ages through Latin from Greek metamorphōsis, from metamorphoun ‘transform, change shape’.
Marina Warner points out in her work on the cultural history of transformations, Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds that ‘when Daphne is turned into a laurel tree and a young man called Cycnus becomes a swan, when the fates of Hyacinthus and Narcissus offer a story behind the flowers, the subjects achieve final personality in this new form: from the perspective of creation and the life force, the shape into which they shift more fully expresses them and perfects them than their first form.’ (page 4)
We see that a transformation story is not a story of development and perfection. Metamorphoses are biological processes, but in the world of mythologies they can be evil acts and they can also be the result of curse, punishment and revenge. Some of them happen ‘to effect an astonishing reprieve’ and some even display comedy (Warner 7).
In this complex system of metamorphoses compare the story of Narcissus, the young man who is turned into a flower to the story of Alice in Wonderland, where Alice shrinks and grows but does not change form.
Tamas Benyei defines metamorphosis in an easily accessible way. ‘… metamorphoses are such transformations during which an inanimate object, living thing or human being suddenly changes its form of existence – even if it does not have immediately recognizable signs. This is why we can consider Dorian Gray’s metamorphosis into his own portrait ‘an absolute transformation’. (Benyei 11).
Let’s see a recommended list of titles, discussion points and language activities for your teenage classes.
- Metamorphoses by Ovid
- The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius
- Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
- Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R. L. Stevenson
- The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- Orlando by Virginia Woolf
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Here are five titles from the Helbling Young Readers and Helbling Readers series which are transformation stories.
- What animal, plant or any other living thing would represent you?
- What inanimate object would express your personality best?
- If you could change into any famous person, who would you like to become?
- Would you rather shrink or grow if you could do magic to change your size?
- Can you think of animals which dramatically change during their existence (e.g. butterfly)?
1 The vocabulary of transformation
We have several verbs to describe different aspects of change. Read this list and make sentences with these verbs.
VERBS (B1, B1+, B2 level)
change, change into, change back, turn into, transform, transform someone or something into something, modify, mutate, perfect, convert, modify, alter, adapt, increase, decrease, revamp, transfer, revolutionise
2 The grammar of transformation
It is often challenging for students to understand the different aspects of English tenses, especially the ones which express change or an unfinished action. Practice these tenses through storytelling activities so that your students can become more familiar with these abstract concepts of time.
Present continuous and present perfect tenses: examples
- The kittens are growing quickly.
- She is getting tall.
- Our environment is changing rapidly.
- Your English is improving.
- He has turned into a frog.
- She has run ten kilometres.
- We have just seen a dragon.
3 Writing and speaking activities
Browse our two resource books for fun writing activities
Writing Stories by Andrew Wright and David A. Hill
- Activity 2.4: Different perceptions in the same place, page 38
- Activity 2.27: Two versions of the same story, page 77
Creative Writing by Christine Frank and Mario Rinvolucri
- Activity 35: Words to Text, page 59
- Activity 40: Gazing in the Mirror, page 67
- Activity 50: Happy Chair, Sad Chair, page 81
- Warner, Marina. Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Tamas, Benyei. Más alakban – A metamorfózis poétikája és politikája. Pannónia Könyvek, 2013.