You win some, you lose some. Aesop was an equal opportunity storyteller and the tortoise of fables sometimes gets a raw deal. But not this particular tortoise. Sometimes it’s “The Hare and the Tortoise”, sometimes it’s “The Tortoise and the Hare”. This tortoise just goes about his business and wins the day. I’ve never once heard him complain that he hasn’t been billed first in the title.
How do picture book storytellers expand this well-known fable to flesh out a 32 page story? And how are the tropes in this particular fable replicated across popular story for all ages?
THE FABLE OF THE HARE AND THE TORTOISE
A Hare was making fun of the Tortoise one day for being so slow.
“Do you ever get anywhere?” he asked with a mocking laugh.
“Yes,” replied the Tortoise, “and I get there sooner than you think. I’ll run you a race and prove it.”
The Hare was much amused at the idea of running a race with the Tortoise, but for the fun of the thing he agreed. So the Fox, who had consented to act as judge, marked the distance and started the runners off.
The Hare was soon far out of sight, and to make the Tortoise feel very deeply how ridiculous it was for him to try a race with a Hare, he lay down beside the course to take a nap until the Tortoise should catch up.
The Tortoise meanwhile kept going slowly but steadily, and, after a time, passed the place where the Hare was sleeping. But the Hare slept on very peacefully; and when at last he did wake up, the Tortoise was near the goal. The Hare now ran his swiftest, but he could not overtake the Tortoise in time.
The race is not always to the swift.
The hare is an unwitting trickster archetype. Sometimes one character underestimates another character by judging them by the way they look. The revenge of the underestimated character is hugely successful with audiences and readers.
One example is Mickey Donovan, the most empathetic gangster from prestige TV. In the Season Four episode “Chinese Algebra” (2016), Mickey turns up to a rich young guy’s house to ask him a favour. The young guy greets Mickey as “the nearly departed”, then refuses to grant Mickey the favour. So in a Hare and Tortoise-esque plot, Mickey offers to play a game of ping pong. If he wins, he gets the favour. If he loses, the bet is still in the young guy’s favour.
Because we are all primed on stories with this plot, you know already that Mickey is going to win the game. I said, “I bet it turns out Mickey was a champion ping pong player in prison”. (I’ve seen a lot of prison shows with ping pong tables. I’ve also seen a lot of fictional psychiatric wards with ping pong tables, but there are no ping pong tables in psychiatric wards, ftr. You don’t even get picture frames in psychiatric wards.) By the way, I was right.
Mickey Donovan is underestimated because of his age. This plot plays right across all seasons. He is even diagnosed with dementia (falsely) to escape criminal charges.
In many other stories, especially those for kids, characters are underestimated because they are girls in a boys’ arena, or they are ‘wimpy’ boys in a manly arena.
SETTING OF “THE HARE AND THE TORTOISE”
- PERIOD — fables are atemporal, though once a picture book is illustrated, there are often details which place it in a specific era.
- DURATION — I guess a few hours, in Aesop’s version.
- LOCATION — aspatial
- ARENA — between the start and end of a running track
- MANMADE SPACES — Most modern illustrators for children turn the running track into a space that’s been set up for the purpose, with flags, adjudicators and whatnot. In Aesop’s time it might have been a natural track through the woods.
- NATURAL SETTINGS — I’m guessing the woods. Do tortoises and hares share a natural habitat?
- WEATHER — Good for running a race.
- TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Nope.
- LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This is about a low-stakes race, but what’s really at stake here? Reputation.
- THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The hare is wrong about the tortoise, of course.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE HARE AND THE TORTOISE”
I’m looking at a Little Golden Books edition published 1984. The story is retold by by Margo Lundell and illustrated by John Abbott Nez.
The animals of Aesop are male by default but, by 1984, children’s storytellers were starting to make attempts at gender diversity. (Little Golden Books of the 20th century were two thirds male characters, according to a study by Janice McCabe.) The tortoise in this retelling is clearly a girl.
Notice how the hare remains male and the tortoise is now female? This is in line with how femininity is seen as a disadvantage in itself. Though it’s left off the page, I’ve no doubt the hare underestimates the girl in a race partly because she’s a tortoise and… well… partly because she’s a girl.
To answer the question: How does this writer expand the story to fit 32 pages of picturebook, Margo Lundell expanded the opening sequence into a series of scenes in which the hare shows off about how great he is. These scenes are presented as iterative:
Once there was a hare who lived in a wood. The hare thought of himself as a very clever fellow.
Often the hare visited his friend the tortoise. He liked to tell his friend how clever he was.
Now the story switches to singulative:
One day the hare came to the tortoise’s house to show off five plump turnips he had taken from the farmer’s garden.
A few more scenes show the reader that the boastful hare is the designated Hate Sink.
On the surface, the hare wants to be the best at everything, culminating in winning a speed race. Hares can run at 70 km/h (43 mph) and when confronted by predators they rely on outrunning them in the open. Speed is literally the hare’s greatest asset.
Under the surface, he clearly has confidence issues. But the young reader is not encouraged to consider this aspect of the hare’s background, the ghost you’ll often find expanded upon in stories for older readers.
The hare and the tortoise are each other’s opposition.
The hare plans to win the race. That’s it. So does the tortoise. There’s no trickster work involved here, other than the ‘trick’ of tortoises being faster than they appear, or rather, the cognitive bias that affects us all: if something runs at high speed, we assume they are faster overall, in every situation.
The hare is about to win, but full of false bravado, he takes a rest before the finish line and accidentally falls asleep. The tortoise wins.
The tortoise knew all along that she would win. She has no character arc. Does the tortoise learn anything? Doesn’t matter. The point of a fable is to teach the audience something.
In my Little Golden Book version, the hare is a surprisingly gracious loser. I believe this is to teach the young reader how to lose. (It does seem a bit out of character, though. I bet he chucked a paddy.)
In an Aesop fable, the moral is often spelt out. The message spelled out in the Little Golden Book version, the storytellers have used the archetype of the wise owl to embody the moralistic voice:
The owl had something else to add. “Slow and steady often wins the race,” he said. And the tortoise and hare agreed.
This fable must have been told and retold by a people who had taken much notice of animal behaviour. Modern research bears out the result:
Researchers have discovered that, over the long-run, the race will indeed go to the slower, steadier animal. An analysis of the reported speeds of animals based on land, air and water shows that some of the world’s fastest animals are actually some of the slowest when their movements are averaged throughout their lifetimes, giving credence to Aesop’s fable ‘The Tortoise and the Hare.’
Adults appreciate the message in this fable as it applies to kids, a proportion of which will rush through a task in order to be first.
TORTOISES FROM OTHER STORIES
The Tortoise and the Ducks
In contrast to “The Hare and the Tortoise”, the fable of “The Tortoise and the Ducks” does not end well for the tortoise. He wanted to see more of the world, which is generally a noble thing to do in a fairytale. Two ducks offer to give this tortoise a ride, but warn him to keep his mouth shut. Another bird flew past them and comments that he must be the King of Tortoises. When he tries to reply he opens his mouth and falls to his death. The moral of this fable: Foolish curiosity and vanity often lead to misfortune.
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
Blondine and the Tortoise
Header illustration: Arthur Rackham’s illustration for “The Hare and the Tortoise” from a collection of Aesop’s Fables.
The Hare and the Tortoise is ultimately a story about persistence. For many more books about trying your hardest until you’ve achieved your goal, see here.
A determined snail.
A plump cabbage.
A truly epic journey . . .
In a book as cheerful and charming as Snail himself, Corey Tabor tells a winning tale of a slow but steady snail, whose determination and kindness bring him the best reward of all: friendship.