The Useless Donkeys by Lydia Pender and Judith Cowell (1979)

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At first I thought The Useless Donkeys was going to be a more realistic, earlier version of Walter The Farting Dog in which an adult threatens to get rid of a family pet, but over the course of the story the pet(s) prove their true worth and end up staying with the children.

I was a little off in my prediction. Instead, these donkeys are donkeys in the realistic sense. There’s nothing anthropomorphised about them at all. So they just wander around being donkeys, without ever proving their worth. Instead, the oldest daughter in this story happens upon what’s nowadays known as ‘The Benjamin Franklin Effect‘, in which the more you do for someone the better you like them.

The front matter tells us the illustrator, Judith Cowell, is a perfectionist and spent two years working studiously on the watercolours of this book. As you’d expect, they’re worthy of framing.

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Perhaps this is why Cowell seems to have produced only two books in her lifetime. I suspect you can find more of her artwork here.

STORY WORLD OF THE USELESS DONKEYS

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This storybook world is something between English and Australian. I couldn’t decide whether the author was Australian or English, in fact, so wasn’t surprised to look her up and find she was English born but spent most of her life in Australia.

Lydia Pender was the daughter of George Herbert and Ethel Podger. She came to Australia with her parents and four brothers in 1920. They lived in Sydney and she went to St. Albans Church of England School, Hunters Hill, completing the Leaving Certificate. Pender won a scholarship to do a bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney but did not complete it.

There is something quite English about the diction, and the way the full names of the children are used. Then there’s that heavy rain, of course, which is often absent from Australian picturebooks set on farms. (See for example Two Summers.)

This is a cosy homestead, a small farm with a big, bustling family. The house provides safety, and the children are healthily excited about the rising river.

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We have a newspaper reading father and a mother dressed as a 1940s housewife, tending to the family.

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DONKEYS

Donkeys are one of the main animals in Aesop’s fables. (They’re often referred to as an ‘ass’, which has fallen out of favour for some weird reason.)

Asses, no surprise, are often depicted as hapless victim types, with no brains. They fall into traps easily, and they are drawn towards fun with no thought to consequences.

Donkeys in real life have been important to us since the age of agriculture, but only if they can be put to work. Unlike horses and ponies, donkeys in children’s literature are primarily for working rather than for companionship. Donkeys don’t save the day very often. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the donkeys in this story are actual donkeys, not people in the form of donkeys.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE USELESS DONKEYS

WEAKNESS/NEED

A pair of donkeys are useless and a bit annoying.

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DESIRE

The mother and children want to keep the donkeys.

OPPONENT

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The father. This guy is a farmer type who values animals only for their utility.

PLAN

The two eldest children row to the ‘island’ and spend the night keeping the donkeys company.

BATTLE

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The storm sequence.

A storm can symbolize the turmoil in the character’s psyche.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva

The reason for that watery watercolour technique, with those large splashes to add texture, becomes clear when it starts raining in the story and the river rises.

SELF-REVELATION

The more you do for somebody, the more you like them. It applies to babies and it applies to animals.

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NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The donkeys will be allowed to stay. We know this because the father gave the final say to the more sympathetic mother.

This part of the story is implied rather than shown.

 

Fog Symbolism

Yellow Fog

In stories and in art, fog and mist symbolises a variety of related things: obfuscation, mystery, dreams, confusion and a blurring between reality and unreality.

First, a description of fog from classic literature:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

FOG AND THE UNCANNY (UNHEIMLICH)

Here’s the thing about fog. It clears. While it’s hanging around, though, we can’t see much beyond our own noses, and this feels uncanny.

For this exact reason, fog is strongly symbolically linked to the uncanny, or unheimlich — uneasy, eerie, bloodcurdling.

The uncanny can be difficult to distinguish from the fantastic, but here’s a delineation:

With the uncanny, impossible events eventually find a rational explanation which in the end undermines the preternatural.

With the fantastic, the reader is left to hesitate between a rational and an irrational interpretation of impossible events, and the text does not clearly support one or the other.

Since fog clears, opening up to daylight (most typically), this corresponds to the feeling of ‘finding a rational explanation’. Philosopher Friedrich Schelling wrote about the uncanny in Philosophie der Mythologie (1835). According to Schelling, everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet it comes to light. This is how fog tends to be used in stories, too. A fog scene will naturally precede the Self-revelation.

THE OTHERS

We see it in The Others, in which the mother walks around in a fog, with the fog functioning as a barrier between herself and the other world. Eventually she (and the audience) enjoy a big reveal. We learn why she can’t penetrate the ‘wall’ of fog. The fog in this example provides a convenient boundary to the story arena, and also symbolises ‘lack of knowing’.

BLACKDOG

Levi Pinfold makes heavy use of fog in his picturebook Blackdog. Fog functions similarly to how it functions in The Others, even though one is a psychological horror and the other is a children’s picture book.

THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE

In the passage below, Neil Gaiman uses the same symbolism:

They felt the castle long before they saw it, felt it as a wave of sleep that pushed them away. If they walked towards it their heads fogged, their minds frayed, their spirits fell, their thoughts clouded. The moment they turned away they woke up into the world, felt brighter, saner, wiser.

The queen and the dwarfs pushed deeper into the mental fog.

The Sleeper And The Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Hedgehog in the Fog by Sergey Kozlov, Yuri Norstein & Francheska Yarbusova

In the short film below (from 1975), a hedgehog character explores the local environment. The lightly forested area is shrouded in fog, so thick Hedgehog can’t even see his own paw. This is a fairly utopian setting — creatures are going about their daily business — but the presence of fog creates an environment which is potentially deadly. Threats — or potential threats — emerge suddenly out of the gloom.  But the dog is revealed to be a harmless pet and simply runs off after inspecting Hedgehog.

Eventually Hedgehog finds himself floating down a river, evoking river symbolism.

Eventually it is nighttime and Hedgehog is reunited with his best friend. It is no longer foggy — darkness provides an unexpectedly safer cloak.

SEE ALSO

Ponyo by Miyazaki Symbolism and Structure

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a feature-length anime which makes heavy use of  myth and symbolism but is aimed squarely at a young child audience.

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Gake no ue no Ponyo. A Japanese promotional poster. In some Japanese films the English title is extended (Totoro becomes ‘My Neighbour Totoro’) but in this case, ‘Ponyo On Top Of The Cliff’ has rather a clunky sound to it, and this time is shortened to just ‘Ponyo’.

Dani Cavallaro, in Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study describes Ponyo as ‘an intimate bildungsroman’ and writes:

Sousuke’s developmental journey begins with his rescue of a plucky little goldfish that has run away from her underwater home and is desperately keen on becoming human (presumably unaware that such a status is by no means unproblematically advantageous), whom the boy calls Ponyo, vowing to protect her at any price. At the same time, the anime’s intimate mood is reinforced by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship with his mother Lisa. The bildungsroman dramatized in Ponyo concentrates concurrently on two interrelated journeys. One of these addresses the human protagonist’s emotional and intellectual development as he negotiates the various complications attendant on his relationships not only with the heroine and the marine domain she comes from but also his caring mother and often absent father. The other focuses on Ponyo’s evolution from the moment she decides to abandon her father’s protected abode and explore the outside world with all its unforeseeable wonders and perils.

STORYWORLD

Food

Food usually has its own starring role in the setting of Miyazaki movies.

  • The feast that turns the parents into pigs in Spirited Away, then the steamed red bean buns and the sponge cake scene
  • The bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Herring pot pie and rice porridge (おかゆ) as well as all the fresh bread products from Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • More rice porridge in Princess Mononoke
  • Bento boxes from My Neighbour Totoro
  • The fried egg in bread (目玉焼きパン) and the winter vegetable stew (煮物) from Laputa
  • Fried horse mackerel (アジフライ) from Up On Poppy Hill (nothing to do with horses — it’s a different kind of mackerel)
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