The Transformation of Lucius Apuleius of Madaura is another title of the picaresque story typically known, through William Adlington’s celebrated sixteenth century English translation, as The Golden Ass. From antiquity, the word “golden” has been added to the title, because a common custom for Roman storytellers was to demand payment for a “golden” story. In his “Address to the Reader,” Lucius Apuleius describes the literary conventions of his tale as Egyptian, but the major sources for the book—which may be called a prototype of the novel—are Lucius of Patra’s The Ass, of which no copy survives, or Lucian of Samosata’s (c. 120-after 180) Lucius, Or The Ass, a bawdy and comparatively crude tale that is still extant. Apuleius’s novel is much longer, richer in invention, and more fully detailed than Lucian’s. Moreover, it contains many stories left out of the source, including the splendid ironical tale, “Cupid and Psyche”; the stories of Aristomenes, Thelyphron, and others; the episode concerning the Festival of Laughter; and the conclusion, written in an elevated, religious manner, instead of the farcical version of the original. The tone of Apuleius’s Latin, for the most part intentionally archaic and odd, has been reproduced for generations of English readers in Adlington’s translation; among modern English translations, Robert Graves’s version has effectively captured the vigor, sly humor, and spontaneity of the author’s language.
The Golden Ass, taken as a whole, is robustly comical and satirical, so many readers may not fully appreciate the serious, religious parts of the novel. However, the troubles of Lucius spring from his carelessness—if not impiety—toward the gods. He is guilty of two crimes: meddling with the powers of the supernatural and associating with people who have bad luck. Through his dangerous curiosity about witchcraft, he brings upon himself the troubles resulting from his transformation; through his sexual dalliance with the household slave Fotis, he invites all sorts of disasters, not the least of which is falling from the respectable class of well-born freeman to a level even beneath that of a slave, to the subhuman condition of the ass. Moreover, his extreme punishment is, from the standpoint of the cult of Isis and Osiris, fully deserved. The ass, which to the cultists represents lust, wickedness, and cruelty rather than stubbornness or indolence, is the perfect agent of Lucius’s metamorphosis. He must endure twelve months of suffering in the ass’s skin, until he is redeemed at last—through the benevolent intercession of the goddess Isis—as a human being. Thus, his transformation is a spiritual autobiography, in which the hero’s conversion from ass to man is shown symbolically as a religious rebirth.
In his condition as an ass, however, Lucius is powerless either to help himself or others. Indeed, the bad luck that plagues him passes over to those who merely come to possess him. Even those who befriend the ass or are otherwise guiltless in their association with him, such as the innocent Charites and her intrepid lover Thrasillus, come to a tragic end. As for the wicked tormenters of the ass—the bandits, the bailiff, the boy at the stud farm, the eunuch priests, the baker and his Christian wife—all suffer terrible fates. Ill-luck, Apuleius implies, is catching, and he does not spare the reader’s sensibilities in his grisly accounts of cruelty. The author skillfully counterpoints scenes of mirth with others of terror, and his effects often resemble those of modern black comedy. The comedy verges upon the horrific; the horrors—for example, the robbers’ plan to sew up Charites in the skin of the flayed ass—are so outrageous that they become comic. Above all, however, Apuleius keeps sight of his religious message. Erring humanity must be chastened, whether through terror or folly, until each penitent discovers the true path of salvation, as does the transformed ass. By the end of the tale, Lucius not only has redeemed himself from the indignity of his subhuman condition but also has become a prosperous lawyer, a priest in the cult of Isis, and is once again a freeborn citizen of Rome.