Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

As one of the most stubborn of beasts, and one of the most cruelly exploited, the ass (or donkey) has been an object of general abuse for as long as there have been stories; probably for this reason it has been used – in Fairytales, Beast Fables and Satires – as an emblem of humble wisdom capable of conveying sharp moral lessons to the arrogant; and in stories of Metamorphosis, in which concupiscent or greedy or simply thoughtless humans are comically transfigured.

The first Western version of the tale of the owner who learns from his ass is the story of Balaam (from the Bible's Numbers). Balaam is a sorcerer (see Sorcery; Wizards) caught in a cleft stick. Balak, King of Moab, has called on him to come and curse the Jews; Yahweh warns him not to. Balak becomes more insistent. Yahweh tells Balaam to get on his ass and go, but to follow instructions. En route the ass sees an Angel with a drawn sword barring the way, and refuses to advance. Balaam then beats the ass, which Yahweh gives the gift of speech (see Talking Animals) so it can ask him why it's being so maltreated. But Balaam baulks at his ass's simple wisdom until Yahweh opens his eyes, and he too sees the angel. Christian iconography made considerable use of this and similar asses, all of them humble, sometimes tending to unction; but novels like Jean Morris's The Donkey's Crusade (1983), though set within a Christian context, complexify the portrait of the wise talking animal, who in this particular text becomes a genuine Companion and mentor.

Related tales concern talking mules. The best-known 20th-century example is the Francis the Talking Mule series by David J Stern (1909-1971), which formed the basis of the sequence of Francis Movies and the tv series Mr Ed.

Of greater fantasy interest are the tales of the man who is turned into an ass. These tales are of significance because they deal not only with Transformation, a central motif in most fantasy, but with subsequent Bondage. The earliest tales of donkey-metamorphosis are at least as old as writing. The first written version of note, which is partially dependent on oral tradition, is Lucian's Lucius, or The Ass (written circa 150), a complex tale whose protagonist travels to a land of women and spies on one of them as she anoints her body and becomes a Bird. Anxious to fly as well, he anoints himself – but with the wrong salve – and is transformed into an ass (see Parody). His subsequent adventures are terrifying, though he also does duty with various women attracted by his sexual prowess; and he regains human form only when he eats a rose (which is sacred to Venus). Composed just afterwards, The Golden Ass (written circa 165) by Apuleius tells a similar story, though the work as a whole is more complicated, the ass tale being a Frame Story within which (among other matter) the first Literary Fairytale, "Cupid and Psyche", is narrated.

The exemplary transformation of a man into a donkey soon became a central Topos of popular and written literature. It surfaces in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600), in Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio (1883) and in Ann Lawrence's Tom Ass, or The Second Gift (1972). There are many more. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.