Children's Literature

The Donkey and the Common:
A Fable

Walter Crane

Published: Cartoons for the Cause: 1886-1896 Twentieth Century Press, 1896;
HTML Markup: For in April, 2002.

A donkey once had the freedom of a delightful common. There was plenty of sweet grass to be had for the cropping, and though the fare varied with the course of the seasons, there was never a lack of thistles to give piquancy to the diet. Gorse bushes gave both perfume and shelter from the storms, and a cheap and easy roll could always be had in the sand pits, while common ponds served for drinking.

There were other donkeys who shared this rough and ready paradise, but as there was plenty of kicking room and no scarcity of pasture no serious differences arose, and I never heard of class distinctions being established between them and certain other commoners in the shape of geese, who were equally contented with the communal system. As our donkey was standing at ease one day, with pensive head and pendant ears of wisdom twitching with profound thought, there approached to him one of those beings called men whom he has been accustomed to despise on account of their only possessing two legs. This man, however, possessed, in addition to two legs, something of distinct interest to the donkey, namely, a bundle of hay. Friendly relations were soon established. There seemed no suspicion of overreaching commerce either in the transaction of handing over the hay--as in some cases where merchant venturers offer glass beads and hatchets for the native gold and ivory of simple tribes. The hay was simply handed by the one and eaten by the other. The two legs, however, began to move, supporting the bundle of hay at a convenient distance, and was followed unsuspectingly by the four legs, stimulated by an occasional mouthful. Thus the highway was reached, and then, without any warning, the two legs snatched the hay away, and, clapping a halter over the donkey's head, jumped upon his hind quarters, and, digging in its heels vigorously, with the accompaniment of a stick, forced the four legs to carry it along, with the bundle of hay.

The donkey resented; plunges and kickings and backing were the political measures resorted to, alternating with total abstention from movement.

Finally the legs were displaced from the seat of government and deposited by the wayside.

The donkey, free again, made his way back to the common; but other bipeds were busy putting a fence about it--they called it "enclosing"--and the donkey was beaten off. The owner of the hay coming up again took advantage of the situation, and a friend of his producing a bit and bridle, they were, under protest, fitted over the nose of the donkey. The two pairs of legs then mounted upon his back, and four legs, being for the time dumbfounded by these superior tactics, trotted humbly along, comforting themselves with prospective hay at the end of the journey.

Well, that journey's end did come at last; but it was in the murky streets of a squalid and smoky town, in a back yard and a tumble-down, draughty shed, with mouldy hay and water, and sore bones to boot. No springy turf, no gorse perfume, not even a thistle to bless oneself with. Thus mused the poor donkey, till heavy sleep, after the momentous fatigues of the day, overpowered him. He had not slept long, however, before his new masters roused him, and, hauling him out into the yard, put on the bridle, a heavy saddle, and two large pannikins to keep his balance true, filled with an abundance of tempting vegetables and fruit that he could not reach. The pair mounted again and rode him to the market place; but this only meant for the donkey the change of one load for another, without distinct improvement in his own fare, so that he was frequently in the position of one whose back is loaded with good things he cannot touch, glad to pick up garbage from the street to satisfy his hunger. " What a donkey I must have been to have left that common ! " said he to himself.

This life of hard labour, rough usage, and scanty and poor fare went on for some time, and our donkey's fortunes showed but little sign of brightening.

Now and then he heard of donkeys revolting, but the only result seemed to be a tighter band and heavier burdens.

One day, however (it was the first of May, too), came a change for him. His masters had driven him--for he was now promoted to the proud position of drawing a pair of wheels, which enabled his masters to make him draw much more weight than he formerly could carry upon his back--themselves included. Well, his masters had driven him to a common; that was something; but the common had a great cluster of tents and vans, with strange pictures on them. Wheels went round, with rows of wooden horses, to music; whistles blew and guns were shot off and there were crowds of people. It was very exciting altogether.

Our donkey was released from his cart, decked with ribbons, and his two masters, jumping on his back, drew him up in line with other donkeys with their riders.

It was a handicap donkey race. Off they started. It was a delight to feel the springy turf beneath the hoof again. The donkey needed no urging, for from animal spirits and old associations he went well. He went so well, indeed, and set the pace so fast that first one of his masters fell off, and then, after a futile struggle to keep his seat, and many blows, which only sent the donkey on faster, the other fell off, too, amid roars of laughter from the crowd of onlookers. The donkey, feeling his back free from any burden, won easily, and showed so much spirit and struck so stubbornly against returning to his life of toil that no one has ventured to ride or to coerce him since, and I have heard that he has got back to his common again and the enjoyment of his simple life.

Comment or moral is, perhaps, superfluous; but if one should read "natural man" or "worker" for "donkey," "land monopoly" for the first master, "capitalism " for the second, we can easily find details to fit "commercial competition," " the industrial system," and "the relation of labour to the employer," &c., in this homely fable.