by Ted Gioia

What was the first significant magical realism
novel?  Many readers will point you in the direction
of Gabriel García Márquez, whose 1967 work
One Hundred Years of Solitude did much to legitimize
the incorporation of magic
and fantasy in literary fiction.  
Others might call attention to
Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban
novelist whose 1949 novel
The Kingdom of this World
anticipated Márquez in its
combination of myth and
Latin American history in a
fictional account that leavens
its intense social realism with
a modest dose of the phantas-
magorical. Or perhaps they
will acknowledge
Jorge Luis
Borges or Arturo Uslar Pietri as the first magical
realist. Still others would refer to European
forebears, seeing Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino
or Günter Grass as the true pioneers, innovators
who had perfected the recipe for magical realism
before it became associated with Hispanic authors.

Frankly, I am always amazed at these suggestions—

with imply that the artful mixture of magical
and realistic elements in a work of fiction is a
modern conceit. Indeed, this combination is as
old as storytelling itself. The only new twist added
in recent decades has been the use of "magical
realism" as a marketing label—favored by
publishers who don't want their authors put
on the same shelf as genre writers. The degree to
which critics and academics play along with this
commercially-motivated distortion—a subject I
will write about at a later date—is a sad example
of groupthink, and an indicator of how readily
marketing categories have been adopted by the
very people whose job it is to scrutinize and
question their applicability.  

Let's be honest, more than
one thousand years of
magical realism preceded One Hundred Years of Solitude.  
My choice for the first magical realism novel dates
back to the second century AD, and came from the
hand of a North African author.  Around the year
125, Lucius Apuleius was born in Madaurus (now
M'Daourouch in present-day Algeria), a Roman
colony famous as a center of learning. St. Augustine
studied there, and later complained about the
pagan tendencies of the local populace, as did
the Roman grammarian Nonius Marcellus.
Apuleius, however, was much more than a product
of local influences.  He was widely traveled and
well educated:  he first studied at Carthage,
before immersing himself in Platonist philosophy
in Athens, and later learned Latin during a stay
in Rome.  He adopted a colorful style of that
language for his most famous work, The Golden
Ass, which is the only ancient Latin novel to have
survived in a complete form.  

Apuleius was well equipped to incorporate elements

of magic into his storytelling—he was once accused
of practicing magic, and his courtroom defense
has survived.  This document, known as A Discourse
on Magic, is more admired for its wit than as a source
of information on wizardry; but it does give Apuleius
an edge over Kafka or Márquez and the other
illustrious modernists who could never convince
anyone they were actual sorcerers!  Apuleius also
brought other valuable first-hand experiences to

bear on his writing, not just his extensive travels
and broad-based education, but also his participation
in the ancient mystery cults.  The latter appear in
the plot of The Golden Ass, when the hero Lucius
is initiated into the cult of Isis.

The story opens with Lucius's journey to Hypata

(modern day Ypati) in Greece, where he stays as a
guest in the house of the miser Milo. He is warned
against Milo's wife Pamphile, "a well known witch
and said to be a past mistress of every kind of
necromancy."  But the young man's curiosity is
stronger than his common sense, and he aims to
imitate the magic with which his hostess changes
herself into a bird.  His attempt goes awry, and
Lucius discovers that, instead of flying off as a
winged creature, he has turned himself into a

Misfortune follows misfortune, as Lucius the ass

is beaten, chased, and eventually stolen by thieves.
Yet in the midst of this adventure, Apuleius
changes course and incorporates a long story-
within-a-story into his novel—the most extensive
of several such interludes in
The Golden Ass. "Once
upon a time there lived a king and queen who had
three very beautiful daughters..." begins an old
woman accomplice of the thieves—who proceeds
to relate the mythical tale of Cupid and Psyche, an
early forerunner of the story of "Beauty and the
Beast."  This account comprises almost a fifth of
the entire book, and is sometimes anthologized as
a stand-alone novella.  (Apuleius's narrative has
also inspired some provocative commentary—see
for example Erich Neumann's Jungian study of
the myth.)

Apuleius is always pleased to have the opportunity

for a lengthy digression, and his readers come to
share his enthusiasm for such colorful asides. Our
author is a charming raconteur, and his work

anticipates later picaresque novels by Cervantes,
Rabelais and others.  The Golden Ass is also an
important forerunner of those famous literary
compendiums of folktales, such as the Decameron
and The Canterbury Tales.  The fluid transformation
of people into animals would eventually serve as
fodder for modernist works, such as Kafka's "The
Metamorphosis" (indeed, Apuleius’s novel is
sometimes referred to under the title Metamorphoses)
and Orwell's Animal Farm—recall that book’s
closing lines: "The creatures outside looked from
pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to
man again; but already it was impossible to say
which was which." The concept also appears in
Latin American works of magical realism such
as  Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World or Carlos
Fuentes's Holy Place.

But I would be remiss if I did not point out the

connections between Apuleius’s masterwork and
genre fiction. Indeed, if you dislike genre stories,
you are advised to keep away from The Golden Ass,
for almost every major genre is represented here.
You will find fantasy, romance, adventure, travel,
suspense, comedy, mystery and horror in these
pages—and sometimes jumbled together in a
manner that still seems avant-garde so many
centuries later. But if I were forced to identify
this literary work under a single label, I would opt
for the broadest and most felicitous of them all: it
is an example of storytelling, plain and simple. And
the storyteller is less concerned about the purity
of literary forms or the conventions of genre
fiction, than about pacing, plotting and—above
all—holding the interest of the audience.

His success in that regard is Apuleius’s great

achievement and his chief legacy to us. Apuleius's
translator Robert Graves quotes Pliny's description
of a street corner storyteller, who would tell passers-
by: "Give me a copper and I’ll tell you a golden
story."  We can do no better than turn to Apuleius
for a sense of the spell those early public tellers of
tales must have cast on their audience. Finally, if
I am right in seeing a return to storytelling as one
of the key developments—perhaps the primary one
—in the current literary environment, then
Apuleius may be more timely than ever. Or, put
another way, the first magical realism novel remains
a valid role model today,  appealing to  us not just
for its historical interest or influence, but as a vital
text that speaks to us with a familiarity and appeal
that belies its antiquity.

Essay published on February 13, 2012

Ted Gioia's most recent book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History.
The Golden Ass
by Apuleius
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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