Friday, May 4

The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius

Adapted from the Latin by M. D. Usher
Illustrations by T. Motley
David R. Godine 2011

Ah, the good old days of Ancient Rome, where a reckless traveler manages to turn himself into an ass – literally, a donkey – and survive to tell the unbelievable tale to his traveling companions.

First, for those who know the original tale and might have some concerns, Usher's adaptation is cleaned up enough for slightly raunchy middle grade tastes while keeping the overall plot in tact. For those new to the story Lucius, the narrator, comes across another pair of travelers on the road to Thessaly who are deep in a heated argument. It appears one, an 11 year old boy named Prudentius, has a fantastic story and the other insists he is a liar. Lucius is asked to listen to the tale and decide whether he believes it, and if he does he will agree to put the pair up for the night at an inn. Lucius's curiosity is piqued, and he agrees to the terms.

In very short order we hear of a magic ointment that can turn a person into an animal, and without a moment's hesitation Prudentius becomes an ass only to learn that the ointment is meant for nighttime use. In order to undo the spell he must eat rose petals, but before he can find them he is discovered and treated as the ass he is, forced to eat hay and live the life of a beast of burden. From here it is one event after another, where Prudentius the ass is sold, beaten by a mean boy, stolen by thieves, all the while maintaining his human capacity for human thought and feeling but only able to bray. At last Prudentius is restored to human form (deus ex machina through the assistance of the goddess Isis herself) and he is a changed man – changed in that he was a man originally but Isis has turned him into a boy with all his year's wisdom in tact. The tale ends with the travelers arriving at their destination and Lucius concedes that, though fantastic, he believes the story and prepares to uphold his end of the bargain. There might even be a story he can write in all this...

Excised from this retelling but in the original is the elaborate tale-within-a-tale of Cupid and Psyche. Though this additional story might have accounted for the passing of time along the road it does divert attention away from the primary storyline. What is interesting is that this change underscores how the focus on Prudentius's tale of becoming an ass ambles along through a series of unpredictable events. This isn't the narrative tradition we now expect which is character and goal driven. Okay, it is, because he does set out initially to find roses to relieve him of the magic, but he just as quickly is willing to give up hopes of being human when he finds a way to turn his transformation into an asset. In the end the story manages to come full circle but has the hero taken a journey or were we treated to a series of Chaucer-like tales of life in Ancient Rome connected by a donkey? Or perhaps these are closer to the tales of Sheheraazade, tales told to achieve a means to an end, loosely connected by the teller right down to the nesting of stories within stories.

Purists may be upset with some of the liberties Usher has taken with the text – turning Lucius into a man hearing the tale rather than being the focus of the adventures, softening the ribald nature of the story – but I think there is something to be said for providing younger readers an introduction to the tale they might pick it up again some day. Outside of college-prep Latin or AP Literature classes I don't believe The Golden Ass is in the general curriculum, and that's too bad.

What Vermont classics professor Usher manages in 96 pages is to make the first complete novel from antiquity accessible to a modern audience. Boys especially, the quick-witted ones with a taste for wordplay, will enjoy the text's unsubtle uses of the word ass, and all readers will enjoy the occasional illustrations by Motley that accompany moments in the story. There probably isn't much beyond this to recommend to readers who enjoy The Golden Ass and would hunger for more – unlike fans of Greek mythology being able to turn to a variety of stories ancient and modern – but there's enough here to counter any argument that ancient history is boring.

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