by Michael Niewodowski
The Golden Asse is an adventure in alienation.
The novel tells the story of Lucius, a Roman travelling through Greece, who accidentally turns himself into an ass. Lucius is intrigued by magic, and finds a witch; after watching her metamorphose into a bird, he attempts to copy her, turning himself into an ass. The Golden Asse follows Lucius’ travels and adventures as he attempts to cure himself and retake his human form. He encounters a great deal of misfortune (he is beaten severely many times and his life is threatened), and some rare good fortune (a confectioner and a cook feed him many delights and he takes on a celebrity role).
The book is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety. It is also one of the first picaresque novels- a highly episodic novel that depicts the exploits of a lower class hero or anti-hero who depends on his wits to survive in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels describe a character with a center of isolation and estrangement; very few adventures happen to people sitting in their living rooms surrounded by family and friends. Lucius is a human trapped in an ass’s body; his entire story is based on that alienation and his search for redemption.
I’ve felt alienated many times in my life, perhaps never so much as when I was once stranded alone on the far side of Norway without knowing a single word of Norwegian…
When I was 19 years old, I spent a college semester backpacking through Europe by rail. I often travelled alone- sometimes by chance and sometimes by choice. On one long weekend jaunt, some friends and I rode the rails up to Scandinavia. I was feeling bold, so I left my friends in Denmark, and took an overnight train through Sweden to Oslo, Norway. From there, I decided to cross the country to see the fjords and visit the small town of Bergen on the North Sea. Although the coastlines were clear in that early spring, the mountainous center of Norway was completely snowed over. From the windows of the train, all I could see was a sheet of white- I literally couldn’t distinguish the land from the sky because of the snow. The fjords on the coast lived up their grand reputation; they were spectacularly beautiful. After several hours of exploring Bergen, and meeting some of its Viking-like inhabitants, I headed back to the station to catch an overnight train to Oslo and make my way towards my ‘home base’ in the mountains of Austria. For some reason, there were no trains, and the station was mostly abandoned. After a lengthy conversation with a very nice man that only spoke broken English, I learned that an avalanche had debilitated the tracks in the center of the country, and the trains could not get through. The rail line was to pay for passengers to take a flight across the country to Oslo. At least, I hoped that was what he was telling me…..
I did make it back to Oslo by plane, eventually back to Austria, and even back to the States, as I am here to attest. The frightened isolation I felt at the time made the adventure that more indelible in my mind.
I’ve felt very alienated recently, also. After more than fifteen years as a professional chef, I am changing careers; I start back to school tomorrow to study for a degree in Computer Sciences and Information Technology. It is very frightening to begin such an undertaking; again, I feel like I don’t speak the language and I’m hoping that any ‘advisors’ are leading me on the right path.
By the end of The Golden Asse, Lucius reverts to his human state, redeems himself, and his ventures come to an end. Although I’m anxious and apprehensive about the adventure I start tomorrow, I’m also very excited. I just hope I don’t make a complete ass of myself, like Lucius did.