Analysis: slow and steady wins the race? That depends on which version of the ancient fable you read

Tales, myths, songs and legends originated from the oral tradition and have been circulated for generations through various mediums, such as writing, visual arts and cinema. Many of the fables we know are credited to a storyteller named Aesop, believed to have lived between 620 and 564 BCE in Greece. It is believed that he never wrote the stories; however, Demetrius is the one who collected all the fables.

These stories came in print versions, firstly during 1461 in German and later in French, followed by English in 1484 by William Caxton. The stories narrated were based on religion, culture, moral values, ethics and spirituality. Grimm Brothers collected some fables, and children were their target audience to teach as each fable came with a counsel. The English version of the famous fable of 'The Hare and the Tortoise' has been known for generations and comes with a moral lesson. i.e. slow and steady wins the race.

In this story, the Hare is proud and arrogant and decides to pick a battle with the Tortoise to determine who is the fastest among them. As the story tells, the Hare stops to rest near the finish line until the Tortoise reaches him but unfortunately falls asleep; thus, the Tortoise slowly and steadily goes to the finish line and wins the race. This story has been read to children to teach them that if you work hard and persistenly, victory is possible, and just like a Tortoise, you should keep working hard towards your goal.

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Interestingly, the version mentioned above is one of many fable versions. The story with the same counsel has been taught to children through different versions according to other cultures. For example, the version in the Netherlands is a story of the race between a Frog and a Snail (Boekenoogen, Volkskunde). In this version, the two animals decide to compete against each other and enter the gate at the end of the city.

Both the animals start the race, and the first one to reach the entrance is the Frog. However, to his surprise, he finds the gate is shut and is to be opened the next day and the Frog decides to take some rest. However, the Snail, crawling, reaches the gate, finds it shut, and sees the Frog sleeping nearby. Taking advantage of the Frog's sleep, the Snail crawls through the entrance and reaches the other side. Therefore, the Snail wins the race.

Another version of the same story is taught in Switzerland (Sutermeister, Der Fuchs und die Schnecke) but with different animals. In this version, the race is between a Fox and a Snail, where the Snail climbs Fox’s tail before the race and reaches the gate. Before entering the gate, Fox proudly asks the Snail if it has reached the finish line. To this, the Snail replies, 'I am already here!’ While Fox was talking and waiting for the Snail, the Snail quickly crawled under the gate and reached the other side.

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The German version of the story has a Hare and a Hedgehog competing to decide who is the fastest among them (Grimm, Der Hase und der Igel). In this version of the story, the Hare does not sleep or rest, unlike the Hare from the English version. The Hare loses the race due to the trickery performed on him by the Hedgehog. The male Hedgehog (Mr Hedgehog) includes his wife, Mrs Hedgehog, in his plan. The finishing line of this race is the end of the hill. Mr Hedgehog sends his wife to reach the end before the race begins.

As soon as the race begins, Mr Hedgehog waits at the start line. When the Hare goes to the finish line, he sees Mr Hedgehog (actually Mrs Hedgehog) is already standing there, to which he realises that he has lost the race. Nevertheless, he won't accept defeat. He is proud of his abilities and re-challenges the Hedgehog to reach the start line. Again, when the Hare reaches the start line, he finds the Hedgehog has arrived before him. Thus, the Hare then accepts his defeat.

The children's stories aim to provide moral and ethical values and counsel with each tale. Not all the versions discussed above contain only one lesson of 'slow and steady wins' the race, but also other lessons, such as one should not belittle the other, arrogant and proud fails, and believe in yourself. Lastly, one can win over the other if you use your brain to its best, as the foolish always lose.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ