The Tortoise and the Geese

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Tortoise who spoke to muchAesop wasn't the only teacher to compose short animal stories with morals. The Indian book, the Panchatantra, is also full of wise fables. This one about a tortoise explains why it's wise to think before you open your mouth to speak. It's framed by a little story about the King of Banaras, the Indian city which these days is known as Varanasi.

Read by Elizabeth. Length 10.23. Text adaptation by Bertie.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.

Kindly sponsored by Center for Guided Montessori Studies

It has been said that the city of Banaras is older than history. It stands on either side of the sacred River Ganges, which the Hindus believe to be the divine essence of Lord Shiva. Its holy streets are crowded with pilgrims, and wherever you look there is a temple or a shrine.

Many centuries ago, there was once a King of Banaras who loved nothing better than the sound of his own voice. He had lived a long time, seen many things, read many books, and met many fascinating people. But his thoughts rambled, and his speech was never brief. If one of his generals asked him about some military matter, he would begin, “What would the great Alexander do? When I met the invincible one 35 years ago, he told me that an army marches on its stomach,” and then would launch into an anecdote of little consequence. By the time he had finished telling the story, he had forgotten what the question was in the first place.

When the cook consulted him, he would tell tales about the great banquets of his youth; or when a poor man came to beg for justice in a dispute over a field, he would talk about the wisdom of the great law-maker Solon.

One day, when the king was walking in the garden of his palace, he found a tortoise lying on the path. The poor creature was dead. Its shell was smashed into several pieces. He was puzzled by this strange discovery, for he was certain that it was a sign from the gods, but his mind struggled to think what the meaning of it might be. At last, he called on the oldest and wisest holy man in the City of Banaras, and asked him to interpret. On seeing the smashed tortoise, the sage recounted the following tale...

"Master. There was once a tortoise who lived by the side of a beautiful lake. He spent his days shaded by the long grass, and nibbling on the juicy weeds. One year the rains failed to fall in season and the sun baked the land into hard clay. The water in the lake dried first into puddles, and then disappeared altogether The animals that came there in search of a drink were reduced to skin and bones, and tottered away on weak legs.

Now, this tortoise was on friendly terms with some of the geese of the lake. One day, a friendly pair of these birds came to wish him farewell, for their flock was planning to migrate to the Himalayas in search of water and fresh grass.

“And what will become of me?” Asked the tortoise. “I am 100 years old, my shell is heavy, and my legs are short. If I plodded all day I would reach no further than that boulder that you see over there. I must stay here until I am all dried up.”

The two geese took pity on the old tortoise and they agreed to help him. This was the plan: They would hold a stick between them as they flew. The tortoise must hold on to the stick with his mouth – and in this unusual way they would transport him to cooler and wetter climes.

The tortoise found himself flying through the skies. It was a most unusual feeling and he felt quite air sick . The other geese in the flock thought that the sight was hilarious.

“Hey look,” said one, “I’ve seen everything now. A tortoise has grown wings”.

“No he’s hasn’t,” said another, “He’s chewing on a stick because he’s hungry.”

“I’m sure he would fly better if he left his heavy shell behind,” remarked a third.

The comments continued, because the geese had nothing better to talk about than the tortoise and his unusual mode of transport. Eventually the tortoise could stand it no more. “See here,” he said, “Do you think I’m enjoying this?”

And that, of course, was when he opened his mouth, let go of the stick, and started to fall. He fell, and he fell and fell, until he hit the ground, my lord, here in the garden of your palace."

That was the end of his tale. In reply, the king began to talk at length about the hibernation of tortoises. The sage listened patiently, understanding that the king had not yet understood the message of his story. When the opportunity arose to speak politely to the sovereign without interrupting him, he walked once again around the body of the tortoise and said these lines:

"And now, O mighty master, mark it well.
See thou speak wisely, see thou speak in season.
To death the Tortoise fell.
He talked too much: That was the reason."

At last the king did understand that the gods had sent him a sign. From then on, he was careful to make sure that he used his words concisely and to the point.

And that was the story of the Tortoise and the Geese. Bertie’s asked me to tell you a little bit about the origin of this story. Animal fables are some of the oldest stories in the world, and have long been used as a way to teach morals and wisdom. This story was written down in Sanscrit language over 2000 years ago in a book of fables called the Panchatantra, or the Five Principles. According to legend, a king in Southern India appointed a wise man called Vishnu Sarma to educate his three sons, whom he considered to be rather stupid. Vishnu Sarma used short stories about animals to impart wisdom to the princes. A few of his tales are very similar to those written by the Greek story-teller, Aesop, about 300 years earlier. Another famous collector of animal stories, Jean La Fontaine, who wrote in France in the 17th Century, took many of his stories both from the Panchatantra and from Aesop. Bertie believes that this goes to show that the best stories have always connected people from around the world , hundreds, in fact, thousands of years before anyone had even dreamed of the internet.