In English literature, the novel is a newer genre as compared to poetry and drama. It’s easy to forget prose fiction narratives existed in the ancient world. It doesn’t help that so few ancient novels survived. One that enchanted me in December is The Golden Ass by Apuleius.
The plot revolves around a man called Lucius who is transformed into a donkey by accident. Lucius is captivated by the magical arts. After he sees a sorceress turn herself into a bird, he wants to do likewise. The sorceress’ servant, who is Lucius’ lover, slathers him with what she thinks is the potion that transformed her mistress. Alas, the servant fetched the wrong potion. Lucius turns into a donkey (aka ass) instead. His metamorphosis is bodily: He retains his human knowledge and understanding but cannot speak. The servant puts him in the stables for the night until they can find the cure: roses, to be consumed orally. Alas, robbers invade the property overnight, and their booty includes Lucius.
Most of the book is his trials and tribulations. He’s starved, beaten, forced to carry overly-heavy loads, threatened with death. He tries to escape but is recaptured, repeatedly. He’s passed from one cruel master to another. Meantime, winter is coming, which means he won’t be able to find roses until spring.
That’s the plot skeleton. Woven through it are myths and anecdotes that serve multiple functions. In its fullness, the book does a little of everything. This sentence from my Penguin Classics edition’s introduction by E. J. Kenney captures it:
“The Golden Ass is a dazzling combination of parable, allegory, satire, robust humor, sex, violence, Grand Guignol, confession and buffoonery, a unique feat of creative fantasy.”
The book is an absolute feat. I highly recommend the Penguin Classics edition for the insights and knowledge its introduction adds to readers’ understanding and appreciation of the work.
—Apuleius was from Madaurus, a Roman province in North Africa, and wrote in Latin.
—His story was composed during the 2nd century A.D. and is an adaptation of a Greek original. The story’s narrator, who claims Plutarch as an ancestor, says he will tell a “Grecian story”: “Give me your ear, reader: you will enjoy yourself.” The original story he adapted is apparently lost. An abridged version exists called Lucius; Or, The Ass attributed to Lucian of Samosata, who lived around the same time as Apuleius and wrote in Greek.
—During Lucius’ travels and tribulations, he hears and tells many tales, some interconnected with the larger frame narrative and some not. Two of the episodic tales are retellings of mythical stories: “Cupid and Psyche” and the “Judgement of Paris.”
—On a related note, The Golden Ass is considered a precursor to picaresque novels — think Francois Rabelais, Giovanni Boccaccio, Miguel de Cervantes, Daniel Defoe.
—References to gods and myths pepper the story, often serving as analogies through which characters relate to each other and understand themselves and their experiences. For example, one character says, in a reference to The Odyssey, “I take it I’m supposed to play abandoned Calypso to his wily Ulysses, left to mourn in perpetual solitude?” Here’s another example that struck me: “By honoring our house with your presence you’ll enhance its reputation, and you’ll be following a glorious example by putting up with a humble lodging and so emulating the achievements of the hero Theseus after whom your father is named.”
I almost didn’t read the whole book. I picked it up because it’s a primary source for the myth of Cupid (Eros in Greek) and Psyche. After reading Lucian’s version, I was curious to read Apuleius’ and am so glad I did.
Have you heard of or read this? Thoughts, suggestions, or questions?