Apuleius: The Golden Ass

September 14, 2015

The Golden Ass
Translated from the Latin by Sarah Ruden
(Yale, 2012) [c.180]
288 p.

Apuleius’ title for his rollicking tale is Metamorphoses but in English it is usually called The Golden Ass, after St. Augustine’s derisive reference to it in The City of God (viz. Asinus Aureus). It is a work of some historical importance, being the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety, and being a relatively rare example of comedy surviving from the classical period.

The story is about one Lucius, whose immoderate interest in magic results in his being accidentally transformed into an ass. To undo the magic he must eat roses, but unfortunately for him they are in short supply, and the book recounts the many adventures (or, better, misadventures) he endures in the meantime. Embedded into Lucius’ own story are a number of independent stories told by characters he meets, so that the book has a structure reminiscent in some ways of The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, though for Apuleius the tales-within-the-tale emerge more haphazardly. The longest of these embedded stories, accounting for roughly one-fifth of the total length of The Golden Ass, is the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which apparently makes its first appearance in (surviving) Western literature here.

Sarah Ruden says in her introductory remarks that she tried, in her translation, to capture the colloquial, sometimes obscene character of the original, and, whether she in fact succeeded or not (which, being no Latinist, I am not in a position to judge), her version certainly has those qualities. Though Lucius’ trials are often hilarious, there was more than one occasion on which I simply grimaced and flipped to the next page. For the most part, however, the storytelling is amiable, if not altogether engrossing, and the tales are recounted with considerable verve and wit.

In the last of the eleven books the tone changes markedly as Lucius, in a final bid to regain his human form, appeals to the goddess Isis, and indeed is granted several splendid visions of her. Here the writing achieves a grace and beauty at which the earlier books had only hinted. David Bentley Hart considers this final section of the book in detail in an interesting essay that is worth your time.

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