Lloyd Alexander’s The Four Donkeys: A Merry Fable about the Advantages of Cooperation

Lloyd Alexander’s first picture book The Four Donkeys appeared in 1972 and has not attracted that much attention, similar to much of his excellent work written after The Prydain Chronicles (1964-1968).  Close study of world literature’s traditional tales frequently inspired the plots he invented, like this one showing how people with common interests are better served by cooperation than going their own ways.   The Four Donkeys is also a good example of his ability to compose prose in short, easy sentences that flows as smoothly on the page as they do read aloud.  His verbs and dialogue do the dramatization rather than the modifiers.

The 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 wisely resisted the temptation to craft a happy ending where they shake hands and promise to be best friends for the “benefit” of his young audience.  While his books always express a certain optimism about human nature with all its faults, including the darker historical novels in the Westmark Trilogy, they never go so far as to project the questionable idea that hard lessons are learned the first, or even the fifth time around.

Toni and Slade Morrison Retell Aesop: “Who’s Got Game: Poppy or the Snake?”

Heinrich Steinhowel’s illustration of The Man and the Snake first published in 1479.

How does the 2004 retelling by Toni Morrison and her son Slade of the mordant Aesopian fable, “The Man and the Snake” depart from its predecessors? Let’s look at the versions of Sir Roger L’Estrange and Samuel Croxall before turning to the Morrisons.

 “The Man and the Snake” (Perry 176) is a warning that it’s a risky business to assume the best of someone unlikely to return a favor. In the 1690s  Sir Roger L’Estrange put it a little differently, but the idea is the same:

A countryman happen’d in a hard winter to spy a snake under a hedge, that was half frozen to death. The man was good natur’d and took it up, and kept it in his bosom till the warmth brought it to life again; and so soon as e’er it was in condition to do mischief, it bit the very man that sav’d the life on’t. Ah thou ungrateful wretch! says he, is that venomous ill nature of  thine to be satisfi’d with nothing less that the ruine of thy preserver. 

Samuel Croxall’s version from 1722 is more violent and dramatic than L’Estrange’s.   Here the man rather foolishly brings the snake home to  warm it up by the fire. As soon as it had thawed out,

It began to erect itself, and fly at his wife and children, filling the whole cottage with dreadful hissings. The Countryman hearing an outcry, and perceiving what the matter was, catched up a mattock, and soon dispatched the ingrate, upbraiding him at the same time in these words: Is this, vile wretch, the reward you make to him that saved your life? Die, as you deserve; but a single death is too good for you.

No remorse is wasted on the snake, who is about to receive its death’s blow.

Toni Morrison and her son Slade depart significantly in some ways from L’Estrange and Croxall in Poppy and the Snake, but in the more subtle aspects not as much. This picture books is the only one of their fable trilogy, Who’s Got Game, to feature Black characters and a setting associated with that community, the Louisiana bayou.   Expanding the fable to fill a 32-page picture book in comic book format gives the co-authors and illustrator more opportunity to flesh out and individualize the story.  A fable revision of this kind is also known as a paraphrase and has a long, long history. 

The biggest change is the addition of a frame story about a grandfather and his grandson Nate.  One night after dinner, Nate confesses to his Poppy that he isn’t paying attention in school because there are so many other things he’d rather be doing.  Couldn’t he stay on after school starts?  Poppy does some thinking, then takes out a pair of boots, and puts them on.  He explains to Nate that these are his remembering boots and “right now they’re helping me remember that paying attention is just a way of taking yourself seriously.”  Nate is confused, so Poppy explains himself by telling the fable of the man and the snake, in which the relationship between the two characters is more complicated than it was in L’Estrange and Croxall.

The snake’s sorry condition is actually Poppy’s fault, because he accidentally ran over it while parking his truck.  He doesn’t discover the reptile until he comes back from fishing.  Although badly hurt, the snake is plenty sassy and demands that Poppy free it, because he was responsible for nearly killing him.  As soon as he recognizes that it is a poisonous snake, Poppy’s guard goes up, but quickly convinces himself that the reptile wouldn’t swear to “never even think of biting” if  it weren’t decent deep down.  The snake still isn’t satisfied.  After it’s freed, it insists that it’s only decent that Poppy take him home for something to eat.  Within twenty-four hours, the goodhearted man agrees to give the snake a safe place to stay until it’s well again. Things work out for a while, but the snake gets impatient with Poppy’s quiet ways.  One evening while they’re playing cards the snake suggests rather nastily that the place needs a radio. When Poppy responds that he likes his own company, the tone of the snake’s rejoinder makes Poppy so uneasy that he makes a quick trip into town for something.  Before turning in, he notices that the sleeping snake has moved closer to his bed. Near dawn, he is awakened by a sharp pain in his arm: the snake has bitten him.  Does it feel guilty for breaking its promise the night it was hurt?  “Hey, man, I’m a snake. You knew that.”

Poppy lived to tell the story because he took the precaution of getting snake serum that evening.  By remembering the snake’s actual words when it was trapped under the truck’s tire–that it wouldn’t “think” of biting him–he figured that was no guarantee it wouldn’t “do” it and saved himself from the consequences of a well intentioned but foolish act of mercy. Instead of telling his grandson how he shut the snake’s fresh mouth forever, he puts his remembering boots on the table.  They are made of snake skin.  The story all wrapped up, the two go off and celebrate by making music with a man who just might be Robert Johnson. The Morrisons end it there, trusting to Nate and their readers to understand the fable’s drift.As a postscript, it’s interesting to compare the Morrisons’s retelling to one by a Black man from the Black community in Kansas City, Missouri that’s posted on the USC Digital Folklore Archives. Unlike the Morrisons, the teller outlined several powerful cautions the fable illustrates: “You should not offer your help, your aid, to someone or something that you know to be dangerous….not to trust the promises of a desperate man, and to be wary of those who might stab you in the back.” The informant recalled that his mother told it frequently to him when he was growing up and one wonders if sometimes the snake had white scaly skin...  The language is modern, but the morals the same as the ones L’Estrange and Croxall articulated and the Morrisons drew indirectly.