peter singer

This month will see the release of my new edition of The Golden Ass, a novel I had not even read seven years ago and knew little about. It was one of those many books with titles that are vaguely familiar, but if you had asked me who wrote it, when it was written or what it is about, I would not have been able to tell you.

Doing the Donkey Work

drawback. The donkey, with his big ears, hears many people telling stories and insists on retelling them to us. Some of them are entertaining, but

the overall effect is that the reader loses sight of the main narrative of the adventures of the donkey. This, I thought, must be why the work is so little known and read.

It all began when I received an email from the novelist Richard Zimler in which he mentioned that he had been reading The Golden Ass and enjoying not only its literary qualities but also the manner in which its author had created a work of fiction ‘that places the idea of animal rights in the reader’s head and heart in a very appealing and strong way’. That got my attention. I looked up the work and found that Apuleius, its author, was born during the reign of Hadrian in what is now Algeria but was then part of the Roman Empire. This was a twofold surprise. I hadn’t known that the Greeks or Romans wrote novels, let alone that any had survived. If this was the oldest surviving novel, or even just one of the earliest, why didn’t I know about it? Why, and this is even more extraordinary, didn’t Google know about it? (You don’t believe me? Then put ‘What is the earliest novel?’ into Google. I always get the 11th-century The Tale of Genji.)

I conceived the idea of cutting out the episodes that stray from the main story. When I did that, I was left with a novel about half the length of the original that still retains all the material that shows Apuleius’s remarkable empathy for an animal and, most importantly, is exciting and fun to read. To that, I thought, I would add an essay of my own examining the ethical significance of The Golden Ass and the treatment of animals in Roman times and today. In this, I point out that although we think of ourselves as far more civilised and humane than earlier peoples, we are no less ruthless in applying technologies to animals than was the Roman miller who forced the donkey to walk endlessly in circles turning the millstone. Indeed, the development of factory farms containing thousands or even millions of animals crowded indoors for their entire lives means that we are inflicting misery on vastly more animals than the Romans ever did.

The second surprise was that a Roman novel should raise the idea of animal rights – or, if that is too great an anachronism, at least present an animal’s perspective on the way we treat animals. When we turn our minds to the Romans and animals, we will most likely think of the crowds in the Colosseum cheering as exotic animals, brought in from the distant provinces of the empire, fought it out with gladiators or other animals. There were kinder figures in Roman times too – Plutarch is the most notable – but I hadn’t known of any novels. While The Golden Ass doesn’t talk explicitly about animal rights, what’s nonetheless significant about it is that, in choosing a donkey as the protagonist, Apuleius doesn’t opt for a particularly lovable animal. If we end up with empathy for the donkey, we can have empathy for all animals.

Around forty-five years ago, I wrote Animal Liberation, sometimes said to have started the modern animal rights movement, and I’ve continued to read widely about animals and how we treat them. My bookshelves have several metres of books about animals, including a fiction section that includes Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Brigid Brophy’s Hackenfeller’s Ape, Richard Adams’s The Plague Dogs, J M Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals and Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals. Why wasn’t The Golden Ass among them? Probably, I thought, because it isn’t any good.

My agent liked the idea and pitched it to the publisher W W Norton, which agreed to commission a new trans- lation of the novel. For a translator, I was fortunate to find Ellen Finkelpearl, a professor of ancient studies at Scripps College and a scholar of Apuleius, who – though I didn’t know it at the time – is also a vegetarian with a lifelong concern about our treatment of animals. She doesn’t share my view of the embedded stories (as she prefers to call what I think of as the donkey’s digressions) but nevertheless enthusiastically agreed to provide a lively modern translation of the abridged text, in the hope of finding a new readership for The Golden Ass and winning greater appreciation for Apuleius. She has contributed an essay of her own, providing information about Apuleius and the work’s literary and cultural context. She also discusses other literary and philosophical works of antiquity that are sympathetic to animals. This provides a counterpoint to the better-known views of the Stoics, who drew a sharp distinction between humans and other animals. She points out, too, that even if The Golden Ass is not well known today, it was widely read in Renaissance Europe, where it was rediscovered, along with many other classical texts. Boccaccio and Cervantes borrowed from it for the Decameron and Don Quixote respectively. Shakespeare must have read William Adlington’s English translation, for phrases from it crop up in several of his plays, and it appears to have been the

That thought did not last beyond the first few pages. The Golden Ass is a rollicking first-person tale told by a man whose curiosity about magic results in him being turned into a donkey. It boasts lots of action, a wide array of characters, erotic adventures and vivid depictions of life and love more than 1,800 years ago. As a novel, however, it does have one major

For people who devour books


inspiration for the transformation of Bottom into an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I will be delighted if my edition enables one of the world’s earliest novels to regain the readership and recognition it so thoroughly deserves, so that it can once again lead people to ask themselves what life may be like for the animals around us.

may 2021 | Literary Review 1