The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses by Lucius Apuleius is Book 5. It is the only surviving complete Latin novel, and thus was mentioned in every ancient literature course I took. It is included in the 1001 Books for that reason and because it is a “precursor to the episodic picturesque novel, and its entertaining mixture of magic, farce, and mythology make for a read as compelling today as it must have been originally” (26).
The entire book is available online in several places, but the easiest to access I found at eserver: http://books.eserver.org/fiction/apuleius/, though the translation is from 1566 and the language reflects that. (The text can also be downloaded from Project Gutenberg at http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=1666). The complete Latin text of the novel is available from the Latin Library at http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/apuleius.html. At Google Books, I found a translation from 1915 that is much easier (language-wise) for the modern reader (like me!) and portable in that it can be downloaded in PDF and EPUB versions, both of which are compatible with my Sony eReader. It is also a nice version for serious scholars in that it juxtaposes the Latin and English translations on facing pages. This version by Stephen Gaselee is available at http://books.google.com/books?id=2XpiAAAAMAAJ&dq=golden+ass&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=1&rview=1&source=gbs_navlinks_s .
Benjamin Slade has a nice website on The Golden Ass at http://www.jnanam.net/golden-ass/ that includes quite a bit of discussion of the text, nice images of the Golden Ass and relevant images to the topics within it, as well as links to critical essays and discussions of the text. Slade describes the text: “The Golden Ass is simultaneously a blend of erotic adventure, romantic comedy, and religious fable, it is one of the truly seminal works of early European literature, with a distinctly Eastern flavouring and a very modern feel” (paragraph 2). The editors / compilers of 1001 Books continue this trend with their description of it: “Its style is racy, boisterous, and irreverent, as was the mode of professional storytellers of the time, but ultimately the story is a moral one” (26).
Basically, this is the story of Lucius who because of his obsession with sex (and magic) is turned into a donkey and goes through a series of trials before being returned to human form by the goddess Isis (side note: I was recently told that the correct pronunciation of “Isis” is to begin it with a hard E sound—Esis, rather than the Americanized “Eyesis”; true??). Specifically, when visiting a friend he hears a rumor that the friend’s wife is a witch who transforms herself into different creatures to secret out into the night to have illicit sex with other. He is so fascinated by the prospect that he seduces the lady’s maid into sneaking him into watch. Eventually he convinces the maid to let him try the transformation salve on himself since, he is assured, she knows the cure / counter spell. Lucius becomes a donkey instead of the intended bird, and it seems the maid / lover has forgotten to bring the rose petals needed for the cure. He must wait until the next day, and as a donkey he is confined to the stables. Unfortunately, during the night, thieves come and steal away all of the horses and donkeys. Lucius find himself in adventure after adventure as he tried to track down rose petals to become human again. Each adventure becomes like a mini story of the book, like the episodes in The Odyssey or The 1001 Arabian Nights.
One of the most interesting things about this story to me is the social position of the protagonist, an issue noted in 1001 Books: “The book is the only work of literature from the Ancient Greco-Roman world that examines first hand the conditions of the lower classes” (26). Slade addresses this briefly when he says: “When Lucius, as an ass, is forced to work in a flour-mill, Apuleius’s pitiless description of the conditions of the slaves toiling there–comparing the human and animal in a single breath–shows his keen observations of unacceptable conditions in the Empire and is a plea for reform” (paragraph 7). The fantastical or magical events all appear to take place on a backdrop of normal life. The flour mill mentioned, a farm house, a baker’s wife, the thieves, the slaves—these are all key ingredients in Lucius’s adventures. The story isn’t about the rich, the ruling class. It is about this man in his very real world using his wits to overcome this problem. And, while the problem itself is magical (transformation), the magic is not considered extraordinary; it too is part of this world. In the end, Lucius simply converts to the cult of Isis and Osirus (which appears to be what the “rose” really stood for all along) and is rewarded with his humanity. (I think this ending deserves more discussion, but that’s not for me here. I’d love to hear what you think about it, though!)
The symbolism behind the humor is deep and, I think, “universal” in that the quest is as important today as it was then. I invite you to experience it.