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This paper examines the reception of Apuleius’ “Cupid and Psyche” in South Korean manhwa, an indigenous genre of animated film (not to be confused with manga, a Japanese form better known in the west). Since the mid-2000s, one particularly successful manhwa, Olympus Guardian, has mined Bulfinch’s retellings to bring Greco-Roman mythology to millions of children in the Republic of Korea (ROK) via Saturday morning cartoons and comic books. Of all the show’s episodes, “The Love of Eros and Psyche,” ranks among its most popular. However, the version of Apuleius familiar to all Korean schoolchildren is uniquely its own, because in this East Asian context there is no “debt” to Greece and Rome.

Theorizing the reception of Apuleius in South Korea contributes to our understanding of The Golden Ass’s afterlife (Carver 2007, Gaisser 2008, Harrison 2011), yet challenges existing models of reception (Iser 1974, Iser 1978, Jauss 1982a, Jauss 1982b, Hardwick 2003). Because this paper presumes an audience not familiar with the post-partition South Korea, my presentation will briefly situate this manhwa in its unique context. Korea was never colonized or administered whole or in part by a western power, and the “hermit kingdom” went to great lengths to isolate itself from any outside influences (Hwang 2010). Consequently, the high culture components of the republic’s ideological state apparatus (e.g., nationalized secondary school curriculum, university system, or civil service exam), and its national imaginary (i.e., the literature or historical events mined for Korean-language mass media), remained unengaged with western cultural capital until very recently. At the same time, just as the Korean economy was centralized in the 1960s so that chaebol (a dynastic conglomerate that inherited the social and economic function of a clan structure) could efficiently modify, mass produce, and export commodities, the republic’s mass media absorbed western genres wholesale in order to produce their own analogues (Tudor 2012). Hence, a commodified and ludic Apuleius that does not participate in any tradition.

Having reviewed the current context of Olympus Guardian, my presentation will spend most of its time on an analysis of the comic itself. Particularly interesting is the change of frame narrative: all of Asinus Aureus has been erased, so that only the inset tale remains, with the old crone calming the imprisoned Charite replaced by a father telling stories to entertain his children, Ji Yeon and Ji Woo, while their mother is absent, presumably at work. The domestic tableau offers an image of the emerging a nuclear family enjoying leisure that had all but disappeared in modern, post-Olympics Korea, while authorizing a working mother at the precise moment when dual-income families had become a national necessity (Robinson 2007). Latter-day social changes and anxieties turn out to be just as conspicuously reflected within the main tale. As a capable female protagonist, Psyche is arguably Korea’s first children’s feminist heroine—albeit not according to western standards, with individual agency played down (Psyche receives help completing Aphrodite’s tasks, and recuperates her marriage) (Choi 2012). Moreover, the decontextualized tale of “Cupid and Psyche”—no longer really an inset tale because it is not set into anything larger—mirrors the status of the Greco-Roman tradition in Korea today, leaving western scholars of the ancient novel to face a thoroughly unexpected situation: Apuleius’ inset tale par excellence has been repurposed into children’s media, and only children’s media.