Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dungeonspiration: The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass is a fantasy novel about a man who is fascinated by magic.  His fascination leads him to attempt to cast a spell without knowing what he is doing - and the rest of the book deals with the humorous and horrifying repercussions.

Oh, did I mention that the novel is one thousand eight hundred and fifty years old?

Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, is the only Latin novel to have survived to the modern age with all of it's pieces intact.  Echos of its substance and structure are clearly evident in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Adventures of Pinocchio.  The book inspired works by Franz Kafka and C. S. Lewis.  Some even trace it's picaresque style forward to Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, James H. Schmitz's The Witches of Karres and L. Sprague de Camp's Novarian series.

Most of you probably have heard of it.  A few of you might have even read it.  Why not more?

Well, for one, it's an old ass book (pun not intended.)  People tend to equate old with dusty and boring.  Two, the novel can be Naughty.  Yeah, I capitalized the N.  Such books don't get spoken about in polite society.

What I find fascinating about The Golden Ass is that the novel provides a glimpse into an ancient world that has not been radically transformed by Christianity.  The setting is second century Greece.  Early Christians were living in the area, to be sure, but it would be a century or two before major political and religious shifts would occur.

While what The Golden Ass shows is a fiction, it is based in truth, at least from a cultural perspective.  We see the descendants of the Roman conquerors of Greece living the good life - to excess.  We see the destitute native population living in deplorable conditions.  Strange religions and cults compete for attention and believers.  Slavery in a natural part of the landscape.  Outside of towns, bandits run rampant and there is no apparent source of law.  Even inside of towns, nighttime is as dangerous as a war-zone.  Law and justice seem to be meted out more by angry mobs than by any official enforcement agency.

This world really screams for a band of heroes.  Even the main character is not very heroic at all.  He's just a poor sap swept up in the chaos.

If you are looking to get away from a 'Medieval American' viewpoint, The Golden Ass is a wonderful reference.  It answers so many questions, big and small.  What do the rich and poor think of each other?  How do people view magic?  What do they think of the witch who lives down at the end of the lane?  When is the right time to kill an accused criminal?  Is there really any difference between 'accused' and 'guilty' to a mob?  What do people do for fun?  What do people think about being 'something to do for fun.'  How do bandits live?  Do rural Greek peasants live in multi-storied houses?  What does an old lady keep under her mattress?

And so on, and so on. :)

There are various translation of the Golden Ass on the net.  Most freely available are the musty 18th century type.  I would really recommend going and getting a newer one - the Penguin Classics version, published in 1998 and translated by E. J. Kennedy.  It's a good read.

So go forth and read old shit and get inspired!

- Ark


  1. who doesnt love golden asses? ;D

  2. Very cool book, pretty gonzo. Had to read it for an ancient history course and was pleasantly surprised.

  3. @Matt - Yup!

    @Zombie - I think we ALL love golden asses.

    @Pierce - It's surprisingly modern - and surprisingly not-modern at the same time.

    - Ark

  4. I'm glad to see this one getting the attention it deserves, and the world it depicts makes for a perfect adventuring setting. At the risk of shameless plugging, I included "The Golden Ass" in the list of inspirations for my "Weird Rome" mini setting for LotFP.