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  • The Spear and the Piccolo:Heroic and Pastoral Dimensions of William Steig's Dominic and Abel's Island
  • Anita Moss (bio)

Author, cartoonist, artist, and sculptor, William Steig has explained why he uses animal characters: "I think using animals emphasizes the fact that the story is symbolical—about human behavior. And kids get the idea right away that this is not just a story, but that it's a way of saying something about life on earth."1 Readers of Steig's fantasies are not surprised to learn that as a child he was deeply impressed by Grimms' Fairy Tales, "Hansel and Gretel," Howard Pyle's King Arthur and Robin Hood, and especially Pinocchio. His two longer novels for children, Dominic (1972) and Abel's Island (1976), reflect these traditions and have been variously described by critics and reviewers as romances, adventure stories, picaresque journeys, and, in the case of Abel's Island, a Robinsonade. Indeed, Dominic and Abel's Island resemble all of these forms. There is in western literature a long and prestigious tradition of the quest romance which is accented by pastoral interludes; one thinks, for example, of the long pastoral interludes in Don Quixote and the world of the shepherds in Book VI of Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Blue Calhoun has identified a similar juxtaposition of quest romance and pastoral in William Morris's poem The Earthly Paradise, in which the Wanderer's open-ended heroic quest is interrupted by the enclosed structures of idyllic frames, a dialectical balance which Calhoun calls the "mood of energy" and the "mood of idleness."2 Such a dialectical balance allows the hero to assert his values through the quest and, at the same time, to affirm the value of art and civilization in the garden. True heroes, then, protect community and its values. They are [End Page 124] courageous, loyal, resourceful, intelligent, and selfless. Like Virgil's Aeneas, the hero's efforts are devoted to founding and to protecting home and civilization, in contrast to the subversive, antisocial adventurer whose identity is defined wholly in terms of action and whose efforts are in the service of self and in escape from the categories of duty and obligation.3 Steig's characters, Abel (a mouse) and Dominic (a dog), are both "pastoral" heroes. Their interests are always those of home and community. They enjoy adventures and prove themselves equal to severe tests of their courage and resourcefulness. But the identities of both are finally defined not only by heroic action but also by pastoral contemplation. Both emerge as artists as well as heroes, and both embrace the companionship of women (unlike the adventurer, who usually remains isolated, unmarried, and outside society).

Leo Marx has observed that the pastoral is an elusive, even confusing term, but that it may appropriately be used "to refer to the motive that lies behind the form, and to the images and themes, even the conception of life associated with it."4 In this sense, certainly, the underlying impulse in Steig's two longer fantasies is pastoral. The innocence of the characters, their affinity with the natural world, their need for the civilized world of art and companionship, the sophisticated detachment of the narrator, and the elegance of Steig's language are all manifestations that the pastoral is a significant dimension of Dominic and Abel's Island.

When the reader first meets Dominic, he appears to be an adventurer rather than a hero. Without a definite quest, Dominic is merely bored with home. The restless spirit of adventure seizes him abruptly; he packs his various hats, which he wears not for warmth or shelter, "but for their various effects—rakish, dashing, solemn, or martial."5 From the outset, however, Dominic's adventurous characteristics are tempered by a pastoral dimension; he also takes along his precious piccolo.

Steig gently burlesques the romance by having Dominic receive guidance from an amiable witch-alligator, who advises him to take the high road to adventure and romance, and to avoid the second road. A possible fate of any hero is lotus-eating indolence [End Page 125] and idleness; this second road, the witch-alligator warns Dominic, would lead him...


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pp. 124-140
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