The fable of the tortoise and the hare is famous. Like many, I heard this story in childhood. But I recently discovered that the interpretation I inherited when I was younger might not be intended ‘lesson’ of the story.
The so-called ‘American children’s book version’ of the fable praises the fortitude and dogged resolve of the tortoise. The ‘moral’ of the story is simple: stick to it, no matter what. The tortoise never gave up. The tortoise is the hero.
I recently read a full translation of the entire Aesop’s fables corpus. By the time I made it to the tortoise and hare fable, I had become acutely aware that the fables I heard as a child were significantly filtered through a sanitized, anglicized lens.
I was now reading the story again, for the first time.
When taken at face value, the fable appears to be more of a reprimand of the hare than a celebration of the tortoise. As an ancient commentator appended, “This fable shows that hard work often prevails over natural talents if they are neglected.” (Aesop, Fables 352, in Temple 1998:257, emphasis added)
It was the hare’s race to lose. The only reason the tortoise won was because the hare got lazy. There is little cause to praise the tortoise just because the hare failed to live up to the baseline expectations we have for hares. If the hare performed as hares are capable of performing, there would be zero chance of a tortoise victory.
Think about what this means for the tortoise: it’s only chance for victory is that the hare screws up.
This message is exactly opposite to the notion that sticktoitiveness wins the race. No, tortoises only win races against hares when hares get cocky and overly self-confident. Otherwise, tortoises are creamed every time. No matter how diligent, committed, and tenacious the tortoise may be, it has zero chance of winning — unless the hare chokes. All the tortoise passion in the world isn’t going to beat a hare. This isn’t an ode to David’s victory over Goliath — it’s a stern scolding to Goliath for his abysmal failure.
In the end, this post is not about Aesop’s fable itself, but about how we interpret it. In the American dream, the tortoise wins because of its diligence, not because of its luck. I don’t think this is what Aesop was trying to get at.
A kid who had wandered on to the roof of a house saw a wolf pass by and he began to insult and jeer at it. The wolf replied: ‘Hey, you there! It’s not you who mock me but the place on which you are standing.’ (Fables 106, Temple 1998:82)