By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ is one of Aesop’s best-known fables. The meaning or ‘moral’ of the fable is worth analysing more closely, however, and the story has attracted a number of competing – indeed, actively conflicting – interpretations. So let’s take a closer look at the meaning of ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ (sometimes known as ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’). But first, how about a quick recap or summary of the fable?
‘The Hare and the Tortoise’: summary
The fable of the hare and the tortoise usually runs something like this.
A hare was making fun of a tortoise for moving so slowly. The tortoise, tiring of the hare’s gibes about how slow he was on his feet, eventually challenged the hare to a race. ‘I’ll race you, hare,’ he said; ‘and I bet I’ll win the race.’
The hare agreed to this challenge, and a fox was found who set the course of the race and to judge who had won at the end.
When the race started, the hare bounded off in front, making good progress. He was so far ahead of the tortoise that he decided he could afford to stop and have a rest. The tortoise was so far behind that a little rest wouldn’t hurt!
However, the hare fell fast asleep, and as he lay sleeping, the tortoise continued to plod along at his slow pace. In time, he reached the finish-line and won the race.
When the hare woke up, he was annoyed at himself for falling asleep. So he ran off towards the finish-line as fast as his legs would carry him, but it was too late, as the tortoise had already won.
‘The Hare and the Tortoise’: analysis
Aesop’s fables are known for having a clear moral, and the fable of the hare and the tortoise is no exception. Indeed, the moral of this tale has become proverbial: slow and steady wins the race.
But this is by no means the only moral message to be divined from the fable. It’s true that ‘slow and steady wins the race’ is a plausible interpretation of the story’s meaning, and this tallies with other proverbs, such as ‘more haste, less speed’.
We can even find an analogue for this message in the Bible’s biblical recommendation that ‘the race is not to the swift’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Yet over the years, authors have emphasised different aspects of the fable as pointing to its principal meaning.
What’s more, what kind of moral instruction we divine in the fable of the hare and the tortoise comes down to how we interpret that old saw, ‘slow and steady wins the race’. For it’s the hare’s arrogance, his over-confidence in his own abilities, that leads him to believe he can afford to take a rest; in other words, his natural gift for speed is spoiled by his idleness, as well as his arrogance.
After all, it isn’t the hare’s haste which proves his downfall; if it were, he would have tripped up in his determination to run ahead and win, or else come a-cropper in some other way as a direct result of his speediness. Instead, it’s when he slows down, as a result of having won himself such a decisive lead, that he undoes his hard work and ends up resting so well that he nods off.
Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise is sometimes likened to one of the paradoxes propounded by the classical philosopher Zeno: namely, the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, in which the Greek hero gives the Tortoise a head start in a race.
The idea is that even though Achilles runs faster than the Tortoise, he will never catch up with her because, when Achilles reaches the point at which the Tortoise started, the Tortoise has since moved forwards. But Zeno was interested in problems of logical thinking rather than moral teaching, so this tale stands separate from Aesop’s fable.
Aesop wasn’t the first person to write animal fables. Several centuries earlier, Hesiod – who is now best-known for his two poems, Theogony and Works and Days (a fascinating poem which we have analysed here) – had written one about a hawk and a nightingale, while a poet named Archilochus penned several, including one about an eagle and a vixen, and one about a fox and a monkey.
But Aesop would turn the fable into a popular form. William Caxton printed the first English translation of the Fables in 1484, enabling such phrases as ‘sour grapes’ and ‘to cry wolf’ to enter the language.
As with Homer, we can’t be sure an ‘Aesop’ ever actually existed. If he did, it was probably in around the sixth century BCE, several centuries after Homer, if Homer himself ever existed. Aesop’s Fables may have been the work of many hands, part of an oral tradition that gradually accumulated. Nevertheless, legends grew up around the storyteller.
One commentator claimed that Aesop fought at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, but since by then he had been dead for nearly a century one can’t imagine he was much help.
Indeed, if a man named Aesop did exist in the first place, he is thought to have been a disabled black slave. The idea that he was of African descent – possibly from Ethiopia – dates back some time. The presence of such animals as camels and elephants in Aesop’s fables, not to mention the tale ‘Washing the Ethiopian White’, support this theory that he was of African origin.