Friday, August 3, 2012

The Tortoise and the Hare: An Aesop Fable adapted and illustrated by Janet Stevens (1984)

It's Olympics time, and today I unexpectedly had to do storytime.  I had about 30 minutes to prepare, and decided to read some books that I could tie into the Olympics.  And what is the most famous race of all time but that of the tortoise and the hare?  Aesop's tale is about 2,700 years old (or so). It made a great little learning tale around in the lap of some Athenian nanny way back then, and it made an equally great stortyime in the 21st century.  Janet Stevens version is updated a bit with a gym and a bit about healthy eating (although perhaps Aesop's tortoise worked out at gymnasia as well, considering they were Greek inventions).  Although I was familiar with the Stevens story, I had never read it aloud, and was pleasantly surprised at how fun and good it is to read to kids.

"Slow and steady wins the race" is the moral as I read it as a kid (Aesop via Jack Kent, which I devoured as a kid and taught me much) .Stevens's version:  "Hard work and perseverance bring reward."  They don't really mean the same thing, do they?  "Slow and steady wins the race" to me means just keep going and going, and eventually you will succeed (which now sounds a bit silly to me - quitting is okay sometimes).  Although that's perseverance, Kent's version leaves out the hard work.  I don't recall Kent's tortoise actually doing any prep work at all.  Stevens's tortoise actually shows some initiative and drive; Kent's Tortoise is a slave to fate.   Kent's a Calvinist, I guess.

The funniest version I read was from Lord Dunsany. I  copied and pasted it from this site:  http://www.fullbooks.com/Fifty-One-Tales.html.  It's not one I'll be reading at storytime, but I love the ending.


THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE HARE AND THE TORTOISE


For a long time there was doubt with acrimony among the beasts as
to whether the Hare or the Tortoise could run the swifter. Some said
the Hare was the swifter of the two because he had such long ears,
and others said the Tortoise was the swifter because anyone whose
shell was so hard as that should be able to run hard too. And lo, the
forces of estrangement and disorder perpetually postponed a decisive
contest.

But when there was nearly war among the beasts, at last an
arrangement was come to and it was decided that the Hare and the
Tortoise should run a race of five hundred yards so that all should
see who was right.

"Ridiculous nonsense!" said the Hare, and it was all his backers could
do to get him to run.

"The contest is most welcome to me," said the Tortoise, "I shall not
shirk it."

O, how his backers cheered.

Feeling ran high on the day of the race; the goose rushed at the fox
and nearly pecked him. Both sides spoke loudly of the approaching
victory up to the very moment of the race.

"I am absolutely confident of success," said the Tortoise. But
the Hare said nothing, he looked bored and cross. Some of his
supporters deserted him then and went to the other side, who were
loudly cheering the Tortoise's inspiriting words. But many remained
with the Hare. "We shall not be disappointed in him," they said. "A
beast with such long ears is bound to win."

"Run hard," said the supporters of the Tortoise.

And "run hard" became a kind of catch-phrase which everybody
repeated to one another. "Hard shell and hard living. That's what
the country wants. Run hard," they said. And these words were
never uttered but multitudes cheered from their hearts.

Then they were off, and suddenly there was a hush.

The Hare dashed off for about a hundred yards, then he looked
round to see where his rival was.

"It is rather absurd," he said, "to race with a Tortoise." And he sat
down and scratched himself. "Run hard! Run hard!" shouted some.

"Let him rest," shouted others. And "let him rest" became a
catch-phrase too.

And after a while his rival drew near to him.

"There comes that damned Tortoise," said the Hare, and he got up
and ran as hard as could be so that he should not let the Tortoise
beat him.

"Those ears will win," said his friends. "Those ears will win; and
establish upon an incontestable footing the truth of what we have
said." And some of them turned to the backers of the Tortoise and
said: "What about your beast now?"

"Run hard," they replied. "Run hard."

The Hare ran on for nearly three hundred yards, nearly in fact as far
as the winning-post, when it suddenly struck him what a fool he looked
running races with a Tortoise who was nowhere in sight, and he sat
down again and scratched.

"Run hard. Run hard," said the crowd, and "Let him rest."

"Whatever is the use of it?" said the Hare, and this time he stopped
for good. Some say he slept.

There was desperate excitement for an hour or two, and then the
Tortoise won.

"Run hard. Run hard," shouted his backers. "Hard shell and hard
living: that's what has done it." And then they asked the Tortoise what
his achievement signified, and he went and asked the Turtle. And the
Turtle said, "It is a glorious victory for the forces of swiftness." And
then the Tortoise repeated it to his friends. And all the beasts said
nothing else for years. And even to this day, "a glorious victory for
the forces of swiftness" is a catch-phrase in the house of the snail.

And 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.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Every two years, teachers and librarians (and moms and dads too) can trot this good old fable out at Olympics time.  It's the most famous race of all time (or maybe tied with the marathon), a tale about 2,600 years old that's still fresh.  Stevens's version updates the story without damaging any of the basics.  Her take on the moral:  "Hard work and perseverance bring reward."  It was true when Athenian nannies were telling this to their wee charges around the hearth a couple of thousand years ago, and it's true when Mr. Librarian reads the story aloud to a circle of eager listeners in 2012.  Every Olympics, there will be a new stand in for the Hare and a new stand in for the Tortoise.  The kids will still be delighted.



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