In this post, I discuss the consequences for me of noticing a familiar Latin text in a scene where it serves as a prop and, according to the story, is not even supposed to be Latin. In episode 21 of season 2, Angel and his comrades travel through a dimensional portal to Pylea, the home world of series regular Lorne (Andy Hallett). When Wesley Wyndham-Price inspects the three holy books of the Covenant of Trombli — as the powerful Pylean priests are known — his efforts at translation are frustrated by the fact that each of them is radically incomplete. He remarks that entire passages are missing.
When he puts down the volume in his hands, all three books lie open in a triangular arrangement. After looking at them this way, Wesley realizes that they are written in ‘Trionic’. That is, a sentence begins in one book and is continued through the next two. No one book can be read in isolation. When he closes one volume, he sees the image of a sinister looking ram on its cover. Remembering that he saw a hart on the cover of another volume, he then inspects the third, and finds a wolf. Wesley next rearranges the closed books to bring the scene to its major revelation. The animal images on the three interconnected books are: wolf, ram, and hart. At this point, he and we understand that Angel Investigation’s principal adversary, the evil law firm of Wolfram & Hart, is even more than it has thus far seemed.
To step back to the three open books in triangular arrangement: At 09:08, one can see that the volume on the lower left is open to the first page of Metamorphoses, Book 14. The words “P. Ovidii Nasonis Metamorphoseon Liber Quartodecimus” (‘The fourteenth book of the Metamorphoses of P. Ovid Naso’) are clearly visible. The volume on the lower right is also a commentary on Ovid, open to a different page. I cannot make out the words on open pages of the third volume, but the layout of the text resembles that of the other two. To judge from the typeface and layout (though I’m no expert in such things), it is a 19th century Metamorphoses commentary in 3 volumes. Possibly, it is only three volumes out of a larger number. In any case, it is not Franz Bömer’s commentary and I don’t know how many other commentaries on the poem run to four or more volumes. The simplest explanation for this is that an intern was dispatched to the (UCLA?) library to pick three old looking Latin books for the shot. The only real requirement would be that they look antique and non-English for a second or so of screen time.
Spoken Latin often occurs in Angel and Buffy, but written Latin is more rare. Or at least I haven’t noticed it. Wesley has already said that the books are written in a language resembling various demonic dialects, so presumably, one is not supposed to notice anything other than a stylized, archaic-looking volume, such as demonic priests from another dimension might plausibly possess. If one did know Latin, but was aware of the poem, it is likely possible to recognize the author and title, and it is possible that one might glean the word metamorphosis from the text. Yet doing any one of these things would invalidate the books as props for this scene.
Nevertheless, there are at least two ways in which Ovid’s Metamorphoses seems almost excessively appropriate to the scene. First, a metamorphosis takes place in this scene. Wolfram & Hart becomes The Wolf, Ram, and Hart, an entity more vast than the corporatized supernatural evil we have hitherto seen. Second, this metamorphosis happens through realizing that outwardly animal forms in fact hide a familiar, albeit evil consciousness (I’m reminded of a variation on Ovid’s Callisto). Having now nursed this observation for some time, it is part of the scene for me. In this case, interpretation has perhaps crossed into fan fiction, but, for me, it works and I like it.