The Tortoise & the Hare
“The Tortoise and the Hare”, from an edition of Aesop’s Fables illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1912
The Tortoise and the Hare is a fable attributed to Aesop and is number 226 in the Perry index. The story concerns a hare who ridicules a slow-moving tortoise and is challenged by him to a race. The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, decides to take a nap midway through the course. When he awakes, however, he finds that his competitor, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before him. The meaning is morally problematic and the story has been interpreted in a variety of ways over the centuries.
As in several other fables by Aesop, there is a moral ambiguity about the lesson it is teaching. Later interpreters have asserted that it is the proverbial ‘the more haste, the worse speed’ (Samuel Croxall) or have misapplied to it the Biblical observation that ‘the race is not to the swift’ (Ecclesiastes 9.11). In Classical times it was not the Tortoise’s plucky conduct in taking on a bully that was emphasised but the Hare’s foolish over-confidence. He really is the better endowed and, knowing this, should not have allowed himself to take up the tortoise’s foolish challenge. From that point of view, those asserting that the story’s lesson is that ‘slow but steady wins the race’ (Townsend) are dangerously wrong, a point that has not been lost on the modern business community.
Lord Dunsany brings out this view in his satirical “The True Tale of the Tortoise and the Hare” (1915). In it the hare realises the stupidity of the challenge and refuses to proceed any further. The obstinate Tortoise continues to the finishing line and is proclaimed the swiftest by his backers. But, continues Dunsaney, 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.
Even in Classical times the dubious story was annexed to a philosophical problem by Zeno of Elea in one of many demonstrations that movement is impossible to define satisfactorily. The second of Zeno’s paradoxes is that of Achilles and the Tortoise, in which the hero gives the Tortoise a head start in a race. The argument attempts to show that even though Achilles runs faster than the Tortoise, he will never catch up with her because, when Achilles reaches the point at which the Tortoise started, the Tortoise has advanced some distance beyond; when Achilles arrives at the point where the Tortoise was when Achilles arrived at the point where the Tortoise started, the Tortoise has again moved forward. Hence Achilles can never catch the Tortoise, no matter how fast he runs, since the Tortoise will always be moving ahead.
The only satisfactory refutation has been mathematical and since then the name of the fable has been applied to the function described in Zeno’s paradox. In mathematics and computer science, the tortoise and the hare algorithm is an alternate name for Floyd’s cycle-finding algorithm.