Review of The Golden Ass (ca. 160 CE)
Read in 2018.
Read in William Adlington’s 1566 translation.
A third of the way into the plot, the protagonist, seeking to turn himself into a bird by magic, becomes a donkey and begins to endure a long sequence of owners.
The only Roman novel preserved in full. A picaresque.
As expected of a somewhat late Roman work, there is plenty of sex, including consensual donkey-on-woman intercourse, violence, and misogynist paranoia about “bad” women. The scenes of poverty and hard labour are the most interesting, being most connected to reality, but Ceres/Isis appearing as the deus ex machina is given the most vivid description. In fact, this novel is the only source to describe the religious mysteries of Isis; contemporary non-fiction about them has not survived.
Another good scene is that of Venus’s temples—Venus here being another alter ego of the same goddess—being neglected because the people travel to see the human beauty of Psyche/Psyches instead. Nature plays only a tiny role, but the metamorphosis of the protagonist is treated with surprising sincerity: He loses the ability to speak but retains his intellect and will gladly eat both human food and donkey feed.
Although the work is interesting enough, I wish I’d picked a modern translation. Adlington’s sentences are interminable and from what I’ve read he isn’t faithful to the original, but it’s fun to see one of Shakespeare’s sources as he saw it.