De La Fontaine's Fables
The Hare and the Tortoise



Based on Aesop's The Tortoise and the Hare.
(Aesop's moral: Slow and steady wins the race.)

Translated from French by Elizur Wright

The Hare and the Tortoise

To win a race, the swiftness of a dart
Availeth not without a timely start.
The hare and tortoise are my witnesses.
Said tortoise to the swiftest thing that is,
"I'll bet that you'll not reach, so soon as I
The tree on yonder hill we spy."
"So soon! Why, madam, are you frantic?"
Replied the creature, with an antic;
"Pray take, your senses to restore,
A grain or two of hellebore."

"Say," said the tortoise, "what you will;
I dare you to the wager still."
'Twas done; the stakes were paid,
And near the goal tree laid?
Of what, is not a question for this place,
Nor who it was that judged the race.
Our hare had scarce five jumps to make,
Of such as he is wont to take,
When, starting just before their beaks
He leaves the hounds at leisure,
Thence till the kalends of the Greeks,
The sterile heath to measure.
Thus having time to browse and doze,
And list which way the zephyr blows,
He makes himself content to wait,
And let the tortoise go her gait
In solemn, senatorial state.
She starts; she moils on, modestly and lowly,
And with a prudent wisdom hastens slowly;
But he, meanwhile, the victory despises,
Thinks lightly of such prizes,
Believes it for his honour
To take late start and gain upon her.
So, feeding, sitting at his ease,
He meditates of what you please,
Till his antagonist he sees
Approach the goal; then starts,
Away like lightning darts:
But vainly does he run;
The race is by the tortoise won.
Cries she, "My senses do I lack?
What boots your boasted swiftness now?
You're beat! and yet, you must allow,
I bore my house upon my back."

The Hare and the Tortoise Definitions:

  • availeth not: isn't useful
  • hellebore: a plant that can cause hallucinations
  • till the kalends of the Greeks: until the first of the month
  • zephyr: a slight breeze
  • moils: labors

Summary: A tortoise, having pretty good sense of a hare's nature, challenges one to a race.

(Comment below.)

from Fables in Rhyme for Little Folks, adapted from the French of La Fontaine, illustrated by John Rae

Comment: In Aesop's version, the tortoise challenges the hare as a result of the hare's taunting. In De La Fontaine's version, we assume simply that it's the tortoise's knowledge of the hare's nature that gives him his confidence.

 Still, the essentials are the same in both stories. The slower creature's persistence wins out against ego and distractedness. Aesop's moral - Slow and steady wins the race - applies here as well.

The Hare and the Tortoise: part of the Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine

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