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I saw a post on Reddit that implied (without sources) that Donkey was one of the bad boys from pleasure island (Pinocchio), which explained how he can talk.

But I couldn't remember or find online any mention of that origin in the Shrek franchise. Plus Pinocchio has definitely spoken to Donkey in the Shrek movies but again, I don't remember them recognising each other.

I'm also not aware of any stories or fairy tales that mentioned a talking donkey? I am aware that donkey is in the original book (although, I have not read it myself) but regardless of that, many characters from the movie do have a fairy tale (or similar) origin.

What original story is Donkey from, or is the movie character Donkey take from the book Shrek?

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  • 4
    Perhaps Donkey is from "The Town Musicians of Bremen"? Nov 4, 2022 at 20:04
  • read.gov/aesop/041.html - Note that Donkey when first introduced promises not to be stubborn any more
    – Valorum
    Nov 4, 2022 at 20:08
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    I MIGHT be crazy or suffering from some kind/variation of the Mandela effect, but I do recall reading when I was a kid a story where someone (a boy I believe) is sent to sell a "useless" donkey that ends up showing the ability to talk and some sort of magical powers, and ever since I watched the movie for the first time I assumed it was that donkey, but I can't really remember the name or any other details of the story to look for it and never really realized that it's actually unclear from which (fairy) tale the donkey of the movie comes from
    – Josh Part
    Nov 5, 2022 at 16:00
  • @JoshPart Not crazy; I remember a story like that as well. I think the donkey plays a musical instrument and astonishes everybody but then fails to repeat the feat when they actually want it to do so.
    – Rain
    Nov 6, 2022 at 1:17
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    O I see now that the site itself provided a human tanslation: grimmstories.com/en/grimm_fairy-tales/…. I must add that it is pretty violent and all characters are horrible and probably not the true inspiration for Shrek's donkey
    – Vincent
    Nov 7, 2022 at 14:14

5 Answers 5

88

Donkey, and Shrek and (technically) Princess Fiona are all from...

Shrek!, a children's book by William Steig.

The plot of the book is considerably different from that of the film, with the exception of there being a quest for a princess whom the titular ogre marries in the end. Early on, the witch who gives Shrek the quest to find an ugly princess to wed tells him he'll come upon a donkey who will in turn take him to the princess' castle.

While this donkey isn't the wisecracking motor-mouth Eddie Murphy gave us in the film, most of the characters differ from their original versions anyway (Shrek, for example, is a lot more obnoxious than the grumpy recluse of the film, and Fiona is never enchanted to turn into an ogre by night). If there's further inspiration for Donkey from other works, the text of Shrek! makes no mention and the book itself does not include the "all fairy tales are real in this world" array of characters found in the movie series.

enter image description here

The donkey raised his sleepy eyes and brayed:

"I gaze in the green As I graze in the green, Seeking out the clover. I laze and spend my days in the green, A chewing, chomping rover."

However, per edits made to the question, movie-Donkey's in-universe origin/basis is left a bit up for grabs with implications made in Shrek 2 that it was related to the story of Jack & the Beanstalk. Additionally, the Shrek wiki posits that Donkey may be related to a fable by Aesop of a stubborn donkey due to a line from the first film where Donkey promises never to be stubborn again to avoid being arrested; this may be possible but the donkey in Aesop's fable never spoke and the general "stubbornness" of the animal is not necessarily related to the fable itself. The wiki also mentions that the film's creators wanted Donkey to be a human turned into a donkey by a wicked witch, per the audio commentary; humans being turned into animals or otherwise punished by magic-users is a common enough subject in a wide variety of fairy tales, but as with the Aesop suggestion, that part of Donkey's backstory may not be considered valid as it was apparently scrapped or never alluded to.

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    While this is true, I don't think this is answering the question - the question isn't asking "what is the source material" but rather "what fairytale" - noting that many other characters in the films are fairytale characters Nov 5, 2022 at 6:15
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    @AncientSwordRage: I think this answer is still a big part of the answer to your question, though: It shows that the donkey character is like Shrek or Princess Fiona, not like the gingerbread man: it comes proximately from the book, and certainly draws on a fairy-tale archetype, but there’s no reason to expect it to come from a specific fairy-tale.
    – PLL
    Nov 5, 2022 at 13:30
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    So, I took another look the other day and accept this is somewhat useful. I wasn't aware that there was a donkey in the original book. That said, it feels a bit like a 'gotcha' moment after explaining in my question what sort of thing I was looking for. Would you accept an edit that said something along the lines of "You're wrong, donkey isn't from a fairy tale/other story at all, but a completely original character from Shrek" which acknowledges the mistake I made in my question and leaves the rest of your answer unchanged?
    – AncientSwordRage
    Nov 6, 2022 at 15:14
  • @SpaceWolf1701 How do you feel about my recent edit?
    – AncientSwordRage
    Nov 8, 2022 at 12:02
  • Some extended discussion in comments, about the suitability of this answer given the question (both have since been edited) has been deleted but preserved in chat for posterity.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 9, 2022 at 5:29
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In Shrek 2, Donkey claims to have belonged to Jack of Beanstalk fame.

He then meets Puss in Boots, and becomes jealous, as he is spending a lot of time with Shrek. By the end of the film, they are great friends. At one point in the film, he reveals that he was the donkey traded by Jack for the magic beans, which greatly offended him. He and Shrek ended up drinking the "Happily Ever After" potion from the Fairy Godmother's workshop and while Shrek transformed into a handsome human, Donkey became a magnificently bred and handsome white stallion (albeit with the same buck teeth and voice, and on the bottle it read that the potion is not for those with nervous disorders, after which Shrek and everyone else stares at Donkey as it is strongly hinted that Donkey has one, but he remains clueless as to the reason of why everyone is staring at him.)

....

Aw, man, where do I begin?

First there was the time that old farmer tried to sell me for some magic beans.

Then this fool had a party and he have the guests trying to pin the tail on me.

Then they got drunk and start beating me with a stick, going "Piñata!!"

What is a piñata, anyway?

It may be worth noting that Jack Andy Beanstalk shows up in Puss in Boots, but has no interaction with Donkey in that film.

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    It was a young man trading a cow for beans in every version of Jack and the Beanstalk I've ever heard. Nov 5, 2022 at 7:48
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    @user3153372 - Indeed. Shrek seems to be a jumbled mish-mash of various fairytale and Disney tropes, rather than an accurate retelling of the various root stories
    – Valorum
    Nov 5, 2022 at 8:26
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    I think the point may be that Donkey is the donkey from all the stories that involve donkeys. There's lots of them, he's never the hero and he rarely comes out of them well. Nov 5, 2022 at 12:31
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    I don't remember pinning the tail on the donkey and Piñata being involved in Jack and the Beanstalk. Nov 6, 2022 at 1:04
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    @galacticninja: I read that as separate incidents.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Nov 6, 2022 at 1:07
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Given the heavy preponderance of Brothers Grimm characters and motifs throughout Shrek, it would be very surprising if Donkey wasn't at least partially inspired by the titular diminutive donkey in the Grimm's Fairy Tales story The Little Donkey, which features a prince in the guise of a talking ass as its main character.

Thus they raised the little donkey. He got bigger, and his ears grew up straight and tall. He was a very cheerful sort, jumped about, and played. He was especially fond of music, so he went to a famous minstrel and said, "Teach me to play the lute as well as you do."

Shrek even refers to him as "little donkey" a few seconds after meeting him

SHREK: Listen, little donkey. Take a look at me. What am I?

DONKEY: (looks all the way up at Shrek) Uh ...really tall?

Shrek: Original Screenplay

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    Another Grimm’s tale with a talking donkey is The musicians of Bremen
    – PLL
    Nov 5, 2022 at 13:33
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    @PLL - If memory serves, the donkey talks to other animals, but not to the robbers or townsfolk, and when the other animals are seen, they make animals noises, not speech.
    – Valorum
    Nov 5, 2022 at 13:35
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    Shrek says "Little donkey" because he is really tall compared to donkey.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 6, 2022 at 22:02
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The earliest story I can think of with a talking donkey is Baalam and his ass, from chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers. I cannot think of any reference to that story in the film, but perhaps it indirectly inspired some of the other European folklore about talking donkeys that the donkey brings up in the book.

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  • This is certainly the earliest reference to a talking donkey I could think of, but that wasn't the question being asked, which is what inspired the talking donkey in Shrek. Can you offer any evidence that this is what the makers had in mind?
    – Valorum
    Nov 5, 2022 at 8:25
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    @Valorum The question was, “What original story is Donkey from?” In my opinion, the original story with a talking donkey, which influenced the others indirectly, is relevant to that.
    – Davislor
    Nov 5, 2022 at 8:54
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    If you can't show any evidence of connection (other than that there's a shared trope), then I fail to see how this functions as an answer.
    – Valorum
    Nov 5, 2022 at 8:55
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    @Valorum Then you interpreted the question that I quoted differently from me.
    – Davislor
    Nov 5, 2022 at 17:33
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    @vsz - It did talk though, as far as Balaam was concerned. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
    – Valorum
    Nov 7, 2022 at 17:43
0

Donkeys in general appear in a lots of fairy tales.

In "Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten" (Musicians of city Bremen) it has a main role and can sing. But it is never clear, if it can talk to humans. In the story it mainly talks to his collagues: a cat, a dog and a rooster.

In "Der gestiefelte Kater" (Puss in Boots) the 3 boys of a died miller get: oldest the mill, second the donkey and third the cat. Which then get boots and start the magic.

In "Tischlein deck dich, Esel streck dich, Knüppel aus dem Sack" (Table prepare yourself, Donkey stretch yourself, truncheon out of the bag) one of three brothers gets a magic donkey which is able to poop golden coins.

Ali Baba transports the treasures with a donkey, Josef and Maria are drawn with a donkey too. In the old french version of "Allerleirauh" the fleeing girl is dressed in the skin of a donkey, to live "invisible" in the woods.

Donkeys were the working and riding animals of the poorer people. They were used to pull vehicles or help in farming at the field. They turned even some kind of mills. Donkeys where one of the commonst and most important animals in the time, the fairy tales talking about.

And they are famous to be "stubborn"(see "Der kleine Muck"/The small boy Muck, when the fools be grown donkey's ears) but they simple do not flee from danger but stand still and think first (in opposite to horses).

So if the author searched for an intelligent unusual pet-friend for Shrek with connection to the fairytale times, a donkey is absolute logic :)

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    All of these are examples of talking donkeys, but is there any reason to assume that this is what the makers of Shrek had in mind?
    – Valorum
    Nov 10, 2022 at 17:30
  • I wanted to show, that they may not had one special donkey in mind, but more a general approach "each good story needs a donkey". I grew up with tales of the Brothers Grimm, H.C. Andersen, 1001 night and much others. And dor me donkey is simple the most logic animal for a tale. No, I have no aource like an interview or similar. And you may need to ask the author instead of the movie-makers... Nov 10, 2022 at 18:20
  • @Valorum and I did not say, that all of them talked. To be honest, most of them never spoke. Nov 10, 2022 at 18:25
  • This seems to be a great answer, but to a different question than the one being asked
    – Valorum
    Nov 10, 2022 at 19:03
  • @Valorum But the question was "from which fairy tale" and my answer is "not from one specific, but from kind of all" (But xlearly not from the Beanstalk thing, bevause there it was the cow, much more valuable than a donkey, because can carry and work but additional gives milk ^^) Nov 11, 2022 at 4:52

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