Lloyd Alexander’s The Four Donkeys: A New Merry Fable about Cooperation Fashioned from Two Old Ones

Lloyd Alexander’s first picture book The Four Donkeys appeared in 1972 and has not attracted much attention, which has also been the case for his excellent romances written after The Prydain Chronicles (1964-1968).  Close study of world literature’s traditional tales frequently inspired the plots he invented, like this one combining two well–known fables to show why people with common interests are better served by cooperation than independence. The Four Donkeys is also a good example of his remarkable ability to compose prose in short, easy sentences with the verbs and dialogue moving the plot  smoothly on the page.

The picture book was also the debut of RISD graduate Lester Abrams as a book illustrator, best known for the concept and character art for  Tolkien’s The Hobbit produced by Rankin/Bass Studios (Gollum and Bilbo are shown to the left).  Abrams’ pictures in the manner of illuminated manuscript decorations were what made the book in Kirkus reviewer’s opinion. They place the tale squarely in the medievalesque world lacking advanced technology with magic optional, the default setting for a great deal of popular modern imaginative literature for adults and young readers.   Abrams’ drawings of the three tradesmen who might have walked right out of Maxfield Parrish’s magazine covers, creatures like the tailor’s otter assistant, and floral borders do visualize the characters and settings in vivid, comic detail.

The Three Donkeys sounds “timeless” like a folk tale because Alexander seamlessly wove together elements from two well-known fables into a new one about a tailor, baker, and shoemaker going to the fair in town.  While the tradesmen pack up their tools and wares, they daydream about all the money they  will make and how they will lay it out, just like the milkmaid in the classic fable who was so preoccupied with imagining how the day’s proceeds would fund the first step to a more comfortable life that she tripped over a rock and dropped the pot of milk which shattered to pieces.  Alexander’s characters are just as guilty of counting chickens before they are hatched as the milkmaid, but they ought to know better as well-established businessmen competing against one another.  In their eagerness to make a profit that will underwrite the purchase of little luxuries, they forget to be realistic.

The next part of the story is Alexander’s diverting reimagining of the Aesopian fable “The Miller [or old man], his Son, and the Ass.”  Although they hurry to get an early start, there are unanticipated delays.  The shoemaker was going to catch the worm, but stopping for a nap set him back for at least an hour or two. The baker must have the tailor repair his coat before the wagon can be loaded.  The tailor leaves ahead of him, but before he gets very far, his new shoes cripple him with blisters.  The tailor and shoemaker are obliged to beg the baker for a ride and pay for the privilege of crowding into the wagon filled to bursting.

Soon the donkey collapses in the road, igniting a storm of mutual recriminations until it dawns on the three that they can’t stay or go.  The shoemaker’s plan to put the exhausted beast in the cart and pull it themselves to the fair is adopted with some grumbling.  Along the way, they actually stop thinking about their troubles and help each other make the best of a bad business. The shoemaker greases the tailor’s shoes so he can walk in them, the baker provides breakfast for the famished shoemaker, and the tailor agrees to fix the baker’s ruined jacket free of charge.

Of course, they arrive after the fair has closed for the day and have no choice but to turn around and make for home.  Now that they appreciate  how difficult the lot of a donkey really is, they make sure he has oats, a new harness, and a warm blanket before leaving.  Unaccustomed to kind treatment, the donkey rallies and pulls his burden as if it were light as a feather, leading the weary men on foot down the road.  “And so the Tailor, the Baker, and the Shoemaker came home together, a little wiser for having made donkeys of themselves. “ And that’s the end.

Circumstances that day forced them to see the advantages of working together if they were to get to the fair and back, but the last line does not hold out any promise that the experience has changed permanently changed their characters for the better.  Alexander resisted the temptation to end with them all shaking hands and promising to be best friends for the “benefit” of his young audience.  While his books–even the darker historical novels in the Westmark trilogy–always express a certain optimism about human nature with all its faults, they never go so far as to endorse the idea that hard lessons are learned the first, or even the fifth time around.

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