The Tortoise and the Hare is one of Aesop’s Fables and is numbered 226 in the Perry Index. The account of a race between unequal partners has attracted conflicting interpretations. It is itself a variant of a common folktale theme in which ingenuity and trickery (rather than doggedness) are employed to overcome a stronger opponent.
An ambiguous story
The story concerns a Hare who ridicules a slow-moving Tortoise and is challenged by the tortoise to a race. The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, takes a nap midway through the course. When the Hare awakes however, he finds that his competitor, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before him. The later version of the story in La Fontaine’s Fables (VI.10), while more long-winded, differs hardly at all from Aesop’s.
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As in several other fables by Aesop, there is a moral ambiguity about the lesson it is teaching. Later interpreters have asserted that it is the proverbial ‘the more haste, the worse speed’ (Samuel Croxall) or have applied to it the Biblical observation that ‘the race is not to the swift’ (Ecclesiastes 9.11). In Classical times it was not the Tortoise’s plucky conduct in taking on a bully that was emphasised but the Hare’s foolish over-confidence. An old Greek source comments that ‘many people have good natural abilities which are ruined by idleness; on the other hand, sobriety, zeal and perseverance can prevail over indolence.
In the 19th century and after the fable was given satirical interpretations. In the social commentary of Charles H. Bennett’s The Fables of Aesop translated into Human Nature (1857), the hare is changed to a thoughtful craftsman prostrate under the foot of a capitalist entrepreneur. Lord Dunsany brings out another view in his “The True History of the Tortoise and the Hare” (1915). There the hare realises the stupidity of the challenge and refuses to proceed any further. The obstinate tortoise continues to the finishing line and is proclaimed the swiftest by his backers. But, continues Dunsany, the reason that this version of the race is not widely known is that very few of those that witnessed it survived the great forest-fire that happened shortly after. It came up over the weald by night with a great wind. The Hare and the Tortoise and a very few of the beasts saw it far off from a high bare hill that was at the edge of the trees, and they hurriedly called a meeting to decide what messenger they should send to warn the beasts in the forest. They sent the Tortoise.
In Classical times the story was annexed to a philosophical problem by Zeno of Elea in one of many demonstrations that movement is impossible to define satisfactorily. The second of Zeno’s paradoxes is that of Achilles and the Tortoise, in which the hero gives the Tortoise a head start in a race. The argument attempts to show 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 advanced some distance beyond; when Achilles arrives at the point where the Tortoise was when Achilles arrived at the point where the Tortoise started, the Tortoise has again moved forward. Hence Achilles can never catch the Tortoise, no matter how fast he runs, since the Tortoise will always be moving ahead.
The only satisfactory refutation has been mathematical and since then the name of the fable has been applied to the function described in Zeno’s paradox. In mathematics and computer science, the tortoise and the hare algorithm is an alternate name for Floyd’s cycle-finding algorithm.
Illustrations of the fable
There is a Greek version of the fable but no early Latin version. For this reason it did not begin to appear in printed editions of Aesop’s fables until the 16th century, one of the earliest being Bernard Salomon’sLes Fables d’Esope Phrygien, mises en Ryme Francoise (1547). Versions followed from the Netherlands (in Dutch, 1567) and Flanders (in French, 1578) but none in English before Francis Barlow’s edition of 1667.
Among the many illustrations of the fable, that by the French caricaturist Jean Grandville is novel in portraying the tortoise as running upright. This is also how he is shown in the Walt Disney cartoon version of “The Tortoise and the Hare” (1935). Another departure from the ordinary in Grandville’s etching is the choice of a mole (complete with dark glasses) rather than, as usual, a fox as the judge at the finishing line. Auguste Delierre makes the judge a monkey in the 1883 edition of La Fontaine’s fables that he illustrated. La Fontaine says in his rhyme that it does not matter who the judge is; his interpreters have taken him at his word.
Outside of book production, there is an early 17th-century oil painting of the fable by the Flemish landscape artist Jan Wildens. The hare enters on the left, racing over an upland road as dawn breaks; the tortoise is nowhere in sight. In the mid-19th century, the French animal painter Philibert Léon Couturier also devoted an oil painting to the fable in which, as in Grandville’s illustration, the tortoise is shown racing upright. In modern times there have been two pieces of popular sculpture aimed at children. Nancy Schön’s was made to commemorate the centenary of the Boston Marathon in 1996 and is sited in Copley Square, the finishing line for the race. The tortoise is shown determinedly stumping forward while the hare has paused to scratch behind its ear. In the following year a painted steel sculpture by Michael Browne and Stuart Smith was set up near the cross-country finish line at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The hare is mounted on the tortoise’s shell and appears to be trying to leap over him.
The fable has also been illustrated on stamps from several countries. These include:
- Cyprus, in which cartoon characters are depicted on a set of five €0.34 stamps (2011)
- Dahomey, on a set commemorating the third centenary of La Fontaine’s death in which it figures on the 10 franc stamp.
- Dominican Republic, on a 2 cent stamp for Easter 1984, picturing a Disney tortoise carrying Easter eggs as it overtakes the sleeping hare
- France issued surcharged Red Cross stamps in 1978 on which the fable appeared on the 1 franc + 0.25 denomination. It was also included in the 1995 strip of six 2.80 franc stamps commemorating the third centenary of the author’s death.
- Greece issued a 1987 set illustrating Aesop’s fables, including the tortoise and the hare on the 130 drachma stamp
- Hungary issued a set in 1980 with this fable on the 4 forint stamp
- The Maldives issued a 1990 set in which Disney characters act out the fables; the tortoise and the hare appear on the 15 laree stamp
- Monaco issued a composite 50 centime stamp on the 350th anniversary of La Fontaine’s birth in 1971, on which this fable appears
- Sri Lanka issued a 5 rupee stamp for Child’s broadcasting day 2007 showing the contestants at the starting line