Leave a comment
The Tortoise and the Elephant
You have no doubt heard of the Hare and the Tortoise? Well this is an African fable from Zaire which shows that tortoises are good at winning all over the world. This story is about a trial of strength. Who do you think is stronger, an elephant or a tortoise?
As with many of our fables, it is told in the voice of a character. Can you guess what sort of African bird is telling the story?
Read by Natasha. Fable adapted for Storynory by Bertie.
I think of myself as the smartest of birds. I never trouble myself
with work or danger. I sit shrugging on a tree, or spread my shaggy
wings and flap lazily over the African plains. When I see a lion
eating its kill, I wait for it to finish, and then hop down and pick
the bones clean. Leftovers are easy and tasty meat. So you see, we
vultures live off the work of others. Is that not the cleverest way
But the other day I saw an animal pull off a trick that even
impressed a wise old bird like me. He wasn’t much to look at – just a
stumpy-legged, sleepy-eyed, wrinkly-mouthed tortoise. He did not
exactly seem like a quick thinker, but do not let his slow steps fool
you. His heavy hard shell hides a mind of cunning.
He was sleeping in the grass, when an elephant came stomping along
with his fat heavy feet. The ground was shaking, but he did not wake
up or stir his shell.
“Out of my way titch, or I’ll step on you,” called out the elephant.
“That’s fair warning,” I thought. “He’d better get out of the way
swift-like.” But the tortoise did not budge. Instead he poked his
head out of his shell and said:
“Do as you like Jumbo, I’m stronger than you are!”
“Rubbish! No one is stronger than me!” trumpeted the bigger of the two
beasts – and that’s rather understating their difference in size by
“Well I am too sleepy to move, and I don’t care if you tread on me,”
replied the little one gamely.
“All right then, you asked for it brother,” said the elephant. A
moment later he placed his foot and his six tons of weight onto the
shell of the sluggish one. Even I winced… then I wondered what
squashed tortoise would taste like. Not too tender, I thought, but
you can’t complain about the menu when you eat for free.
But much to surprise of everyone the tortoise was not squashed. His
shell could hold up even an elephant. Well that was some roof!
“Humph!” said the elephant. “You’re not strong, you’re just not
squishy, that’s different.”
“You’re just a bad loser,” said the tortoise with a yawn, before going
back to sleep.
Well that little episode caused a stir on the African plain. Soon all
the animals were gossiping about how the tortoise got the better of
the elephant. Little did we realise that there was still better to
come. Towards evening, when the sun began to head for bed behind the
horizon, the tortoise eased his way down to the river for a sip of
water. There on the banks he met a hippopotamus. The hippo smiled
when he saw the little fellow and said:
“I heard how you got the better of that fat old lump of an elephant,
but don’t be so foolish as to take me on. I am no fool. I would turn
you over before I squashed you – so don’t go getting any ideas above
“All the same, I bet I’m stronger than you,” boasted the tortoise. I
was listening in to this conversation, and this time, I thought that
triumph had gone to the little fellow’s head. He was boasting too
much, and his pride would surely lead to his fall. You can’t go around
taking on all the biggest and heaviest animals and expect to live for
long – or so I thought. The hippopotamus clearly thought the same.
He replied, “That’s a bet I’d like to take.”
“Well you see that rope left by the boatman after the crocodile
invited him for lunch. We will use it for a tug-of-war.”
“You’re on,” said the hippo.
“What does he think he’s doing?” I wondered. “How can that geriatric
shell-dweller possibly win this trial of strength with the tubby river
The hippopotamus picked up one end of the rope, and the tortoise the
other. There was plenty of slack in it, and it only seemed natural
that the tortoise should take his end up the river bank and over the
“Don’t pull until I shout ready,” he called out. Now I saw what he
was up to. On the other side of the bank, he met the elephant.
“Hey fatso,” said the tortoise. “I’ll give you a chance for a rematch.
How about a tug of war?” And the elephant, who was still smarting
from his earlier loss, was only glad too agree.
Now the tortoise hid in hollow near the top of the bank and called out
“Ready!” Both the huge lump animals pulled the rope, neither knowing
who was on the other end. First the hippo gave way a few steps, and
then he pulled the elephant back. Neither could win victory until at
last the rope snapped in the middle. The reputation of the tortoise
was sealed. All the animals now thought that that the little one was
invincible. The rumour went round that he could do witchcraft. Only I
had seen both ends of his rope trick.
I thought I had seen it all, but I have to say that the tortoise could
teach me a thing or two about using the strength of others. He let
those two beasts fight each other and drain their force, while he sat
in his shell. He was the strongest of all the animals, but it was his
brain, not his muscles, that brought his victory.
And don’t forget we have loads of stories from around the world on
Storynory.com, including fables by the Greek writer Aesop