Modern fantasy literature has taken a lot of inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Many people have noted how comic book superheroes play much the same role in modern culture that heroes like Hercules and Odysseus did for ancient readers. The important difference is that Greeks and Romans regarded their heroes as real, semi-divine figures of history. Modern fantasy knows it’s all made up. That’s one of the fundamental differences between myth and fiction: the poet who retells a myth wants you believe that the story is true; the fiction author knows they’re spinning a tale.
But modern people aren’t the first to tell stories just as stories. Ancient literature, in addition to myths that made claims to historical and religious truth, offered tales of adventure, romance, and comedy, just like modern fiction. It even had some works that we would class as speculative fiction. Metamorphoses—more commonly known as The Golden Ass—by Apuleius is one of them.
There are lots of translations available. Here’s one you can read online, but I particularly recommend the translation by Sarah Ruden (Yale, 2012), which expertly captures the wit and cheek of Apuleius’ original text.
The story is told by Lucius, a young man about town who gets in over his head with magic and accidentally turns himself into a donkey. He then has madcap misadventures—getting stolen by bandits, requisitioned by a soldier, displayed in the arena, and mutely witnessing all kinds of domestic comedy and tragedy as he tries to stay alive long enough to find the antidote to cure his transformation.
In this passage, Lucius the donkey has been bought by a local magnate and is being trained to perform tricks, which causes a bit of a tricky situation for the human mind in the donkey body:
He gave me to a favored freedman of his, a well-off man, having instructed him to take good care of me. This man treated me kindly and fed me well and, to please his patron, eagerly encouraged my tricks. First he taught me to recline at the dining table, then to wrestle and even dance with my forelegs in the air. Then—even more remarkable—to respond to words by tossing my head, signing “no” by throwing it back and “yes” by nodding. When I was thirsty, I could request a drink by alternately winking my eyes at an attendant. Of course, this was all perfectly simple for me to follow and I hardly needed a trainer, but I was afraid to behave in too human a way at the table uninstructed, or they might take me for an ill omen, set on me as a monster, and serve up my fat body to the vultures.
– Apuleius, The Golden Ass 10.17
(My own translation)
Lucius’ adventures range from the lewdly ludicrous, as when a rich lady takes him for a lover, to the tragic, as when he witnesses the death of a happy newlywed couple. On the way, just about every level of society, from poor farmers to rich landowners comes in for a bit of satirical skewering. There’s also a surprise ending, which I won’t give away here.
In transforming Lucius into a donkey, Apuleius also addresses the anxieties of his time, in a society where slavery was routine and barriers of language and culture often impeded communication. Romans of his time looked on some other peoples in their world as little better than animals, and must have worried about being seen the same way themselves by others. Sudden loss of status, whether by being taken captive in war or stripped of citizen rights in the court, was nothing strange. While no one had to worry about not behaving donkeyishly enough, as Lucius does, many Roman slaves probably faced the predicament of ingratiating themselves with their masters without seeming too clever or ambitious. The story of Lucius’ adventures, like much fantasy and science fiction of recent decades, provides a way to observe and comment on these anxieties and even, in the end, to offer some hope.
The Golden Ass is a good read and a nice example of how there’s nothing new in the human urge to make up fantastical stories, or to use that fantasy to contemplate contemporary problems.
Image: Donkey head kantharos, photograph by Pymouss via Wikimedia (Athenian, currently British Museum; late 6th c. BCE; black-figure pottery)
History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.