This episode—I’m pretty sure—was not in the version of the Midas story I first read back in early elementary school. King Midas and the Golden Touch was one of the books in the Little Golden Books series, many of which we owned. And I remember being both fascinated and horrified by it: Good news—Everything he touches turns to gold. Bad news—Everything he touches turns to gold. Good news: very good. Bad news: very bad.
It’s likely that Mary Shelley had first heard the story from her father, William Godwin, who (as we’ve seen) made a venture into writing and publishing for children in 1805 when Mary was only about eight years old. That year, Godwin (writing as Edward Baldwin) published The Pantheon; or Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome. There’s a little more after the title: For the Use of Schools and Young Persons of Both Sexes.
In that volume, Godwin included both the stories of Proserpine and King Midas (the subjects for Mary’s two brief plays). In the latter, Godwin writes: [Apollo] took his leave, but in parting caused two ass’s ears to grow upon the sides of his majesty’s head: Midas was ashamed of this ornament [!], and contrived to have his locks arranged, and his crown put on so, as to conceal his misfortune: he could not however conceal it from his barber ….
Well, the barber, under Midas’ strict instructions to keep his mouth shut, goes out into the countryside, to the marshes, where, seeing no one around, and laughing, stooped his head to the ground, and whispered to the reeds, “King Midas has the ears of an ass.” The reeds seem to have liked the sound of that sentence, relates Godwin, because ever after, when moved by the least wind, [the reeds] were found to repeat the intelligence of the barber, “King Midas has the ears of an ass.”
Godwin, we know, liked to have Mary read his children's stories before he published them—and to offer advice. So since girlhood she had known the tales of both Proserpine and Midas. In her own version of the Midas story, as we’ve seen, she included the ears-of-an-ass tale about the king. And at the end of these ear-events, Bacchus arrives to reward Midas for finding Silenius, whom Bacchus has been desperately seeking. When he asks Midas what he wants, the king’s reply is quick: “Let all I touch be gold, most glorious gold!” Bacchus does not hesitate to grant the request. But in the final speech of Act I, Bacchus says: “Yes, thoughtless man! / And much I fear if you have not the ears / You have the judgement of an ass.”
As we will see in Act II.