This article is about the fable. For the board game, see Hare and Tortoise.
File:Tortoise and hare rackham.jpg

The Tortoise and the Hare (also known as The Hare and the Tortoise) is a fable attributed to Aesop and is number 226 in the Perry index. The story concerns a hare who ridicules a slow-moving tortoise and is challenged by him to a race. The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, decides to take a nap midway through the course. When he awakes, however, he finds that his competitor, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before him. The meaning is morally problematic and the story has been interpreted in a variety of ways over the centuries.


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. He really is the faster, but should not have assumed he could win the race without trying.[1] The modern business community has drawn a number of other possible morals from this story.[2]

Lord Dunsany brings out another view in his satirical "The True Tale of the Tortoise and the Hare". In it 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 Dunsaney, 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.[3]


Even in Classical times the dubious 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.[4]

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.

Alternative versions

French poet Jean de La Fontaine included the story in his Fables (VI.10).[5] Although more long-winded, it differs hardly at all from the Aesop version. There are, however, many other variants in the oral folk tradition that appear worldwide and are classed as Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 275.[6] In all of these there is a race between unequal partners but most often brain is matched against brawn and the race is won by means of trickery. Broadly this is of two types: either the slower animal jumps on the other's back or tail and hops off at the end when the creature turns round to see where his challenger has got to, or else he is deceived by look-alikes substituting themselves along the course.

Updated means of cheating appear in the Cecil Turtle cartoons and other retellings. Brian J. Dooley's song "The Tortoise and the Hare for a New Age" from the album The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay (2005) retells the story with both contestants cheating, using science and magic in a variety of ways.[7] Roald Dahl also has both animals cheat each other in a poem from his Rhyme Stew,[8] as does Donald Yates in his poem of 1995.[9]

Illustrations of the fable

File:Grandville tortoise.jpg

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's Les Fables d'Esope Phrygien, mises en Ryme Francoise (1547).[10] Versions followed from the Netherlands (in Dutch, 1567) and Flanders (in French, 1578)[11] but none in English before Francis Barlow's edition of 1667.[12] All of these were illustrated and a selection from later editions has been collected by Laura Gibbs, who was responsible for the latest English translation of the fables (Oxford University Press, 2002).[13] There is another selection of illustrations of this fable in books published between 1578-1998 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.[14]

Another illustration worth mentioning is that by the French caricaturist Jean Grandville because he portrays 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).[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] The hare enters on the left, racing over an upland road as dawn breaks; the tortoise is nowhere in sight. In modern times there has been Nancy Schön's sculture to commemorate the centenary of the Boston Marathon in 1996. This is sited in Copley Square, the finishing line for the race. Schön wanted to create a sculpture that would attract children, yet have meaning for the race, and therefore chose the fable as its subject.[18] The tortoise is shown determinedly stumping forward while the hare has paused to scratch behind its ear.

Popular adaptations

There have been a number of film versions of the fable, although some have taken liberties with the original story line. There were early animated cartoons in France (1920) and the US (1921). The fable was adapted into a Silly Symphonies cartoon of the same name by Walt Disney Productions in 1935[19] which was followed in 1941 by the Looney Tunes sequel Tortoise Wins by a Hare[20] and two others of decreasingly relevant significance. Encyclopædia Britannica Films followed with a dramatized version of Aesop's fable starring live animals, including an owl, a fox, a goose, a rooster, a raccoon and a hare.[21] This was a 1947 production in black and white with narrated voice-over.

In 1952 the model animator Ray Harryhausen began a version of the fable before moving over to more lucrative work on monster movies. Young enthusiasts Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero later helped Harryhausen complete "The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare", having refurbished the original puppets and, under Harryhausen's guidance, completed the film in 2002.[22] A feature in this is that the hare drops off to sleep as a result of taking a big meal near the end of the race, so allowing the tortoise to win. The same situation had appeared in Georges de la Grandière's 1960s cartoon version of the fable, Le Lièvre et la tortue.[23]

Many musical allusions to the fable are of limited or no relevance. Use of the title by Waking Ashland and the Jazzyfatnastees (among several others) is not justified by anything appearing in the lyrics, but the following examples may be noted.

  • The Moody Blues song "Tortoise and the Hare" from the album A Question of Balance (1970) is loosely based on the fable.[24]
  • The Yellow Jackets jazz quartet's instrumental version of "Tortoise and the Hare" was recorded on their Politics album in 1988.[25]
  • The Anglo-Irish band Flook has an instrumental title on their Haven album (2005).

See also

Template:Wikisource (specified)


  1. [1]
  2. "A New Story of the Hare and the Tortoise"
  3. Lord Dunsany, 51 Tales, originally published in 1915
  4. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy -
  5. A translation is here
  8. Roald Dahl, Rhyme Stew, London, 1989
  15. The cartoon can be viewed on YouTube
  16. The preparatory water colour is at the La Fontaine Museum [2]
  19. This can be viewed on YouTube
  21. This is available on the online movie archive at
  22. The film can now be viewed on YouTube, the first part here [3] and the second here models
  23. This is in two parts on YouTube, the first at [4] and the second at [5]
  24. The lyrics are here [6]; there is an audio version of the song on YouTube [7]
ca:La llebre i la tortugafa:خرگوش و لاک‌پشتko:토끼와 거북이

it:La lepre e la tartaruga he:הצב והארנב ms:Arnab dan Kura-Kura nl:De haas en de schildpadte:తాబేలు మరియు కుందేలు zh:龜兔賽跑

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.