Before reading and writing were common practice; history was told in the form of legend; fiction was told in the form of myth; and lessons about life were taught to children through folktales and fables. Folktales not only served a role in teaching children, but often helped define the common themes of life in general for that particular culture. Most folktales have a specific message which they try to portray through symbolism, writing style, and plot. Many folktales from different cultures are very similar and present the same main ideas and messages.
Today folktales are popular mostly as a way of teaching morals and life lessons. They are often compilations, or illustrated books made for children. Two popular folktales that are very similar are, Frans Timmerman’s, “The Frog and the Fox” and a story we all know, originally from the book, Aesop’s Fables, “The Tortoise and the Hare”.
In the folktale, “The Tortoise and the Hare” Aesop masterfully demonstrates what we all consider to be a classic folktale.
The story begins with a hare who makes boastful claims about how swift he is, and how no animals could run faster than he could. The hare teases a tortoise for his slowness; the tortoise, annoyed by the hare’s claims, agrees to a race that they plan the next day. The next morning the hare comes to the race half asleep and unprepared. Hare sees how slow tortoise is and decides to take a nap. When he awakes, he notices tortoise is only one third of the way through the course, and decides to have a quick breakfast. The meal made hare sleepy and seeing tortoise was not yet half done with the course, hare decided to take another quick nap. The hare oversleeps and tortoise wins the race against the boastful, overconfident hare. Aesop’s story can be related to by people all over the world and many cultures have adopted the story. Today it is published in over thirty languages, and sells in bookstores worldwide.
A lesser known American writer named Frans Timmerman has a remarkably similar story that was published in 1911. The story is about a frog, he is in the jungle minding his own business when a fox passes by. The fox makes fun of the frog because he is such a strange specimen; she asks how frog is able to move about with one long pair of legs, and one short one. The fox is very amused when frog tells her that he is the fastest frog in the whole jungle. The fox is almost insulted when frog thinks he can beat her in a race, and begins to boast about her speed and running skills. They plan to have the race the next day, and set up a course through the jungle.
The next day the frog and the fox meet with a friend, duck, and get ready to race. When the race begins frog jumps onto the tail of fox and holds on while fox sprints as fast as she can. Fox does not notice the small frog on her tail and already believes she has won the race. As fox approaches the finish line, frog makes a mighty leap onto her back, and then across the finish line, just before fox makes it across. Fox says frog didn’t win but duck, as the referee, claims frog to be the winner as he had barely passed the finish line first. At the end fox accepts that she was outsmarted and realizes that her overconfidence was the root of her downfall. This story is not identical to the story in Aesop’s Fables, but has many of the same characteristics, as well as a similar overall message and symbolic meaning.
Historians agree that Aesop’s Fables was written around 500 B.C. by a slave living in Greece. It was originally written in Greek; European versions were not printed until the early 1800’s. English versions were printed in the 1900’s, and it is likely this book was at least one inspiration to Frans Timmerman’s work. Timmerman’s book was released in 1911 just a few short years after English prints of Aesop’s Fables were available in the United States. Each story shares similar characteristics in plot, style, technique, and symbolism, but there are also more superficial similarities and differences.
In both stories the authors choose to use animals as a form of symbolism to tell their story. Animals are commonly used as characters in folktale; however, the animals each author decides to use are very specific. Each author chooses animals that have traits and characteristics that are familiar to most people, regardless of age or education level. In Aesop’s folktale the animals used are a tortoise and a hare. In Timmerman’s story the animals used are a frog and a fox. When people think of a tortoise they generally have images of a very slow moving land creature. Similarly Timmerman’s character frog brings thoughts of a water dwelling species, clumsy and slow on land. The same idea spreads to the fox and the hare; both are considered to be quick and cunning species and the authors use them in this light. It is likely these animals were common where each story was written. These animals also share similar more transparent symbolic meaning.
Although time, and simple cultural differences likely led to the different characters and context of the stories, they still share many similar traits in there symbolism and morals. Because the symbolism is easily identified, and the message is easily related to, nearly all people can apply this story to life. It is easy to see how nearly every culture has embraced a version of this story, or come up with a similar version of their own. Today Aesop’s Fables is printed in 31 languages.
The tortoise is symbolic in Aesop’s story for a wise, slow moving, dedicated creature. He uses the tortoise to help portray the message that “slow and steady” can persevere over an overconfident, boastful opponent. Likewise, Timmerman chooses to use a frog, which sometimes symbolizes the same things as the tortoise in folktales and fables. A frog additionally represents transformation. The frog is shown in his story to be very intelligent and the message is that you can overcome a problem even when the odds are against you if you use your head. By using his intelligence he defeats the overconfident, boastful opponent.
Timmerman decides to use a fox in his story as a quick, overconfident, somewhat ignorant character. He portrays the fox in this way as a symbol for this type of person, whom everyone has encountered at some point in their lives. Aesop similarly chooses a hare and uses the same technique of making the hare somewhat ignorant and cocky. Using this writing style effectively makes the fox and the hare the antagonist in the story without specifically portraying them as a “bad guy”. They further this technique by having these characters use condescending dialogue in the beginning of the story. Despite the two authors cultural differences, the human qualities of the characters are nearly portrayed identically.
The writing style, and technique used by the authors helps us to identify with the characters. It also helps us identify personally with the plot. Both stories have plots that follow the same basic ideas. One animal is different physically from another, so naturally that animal thinks that he is superior the superior creature. They use animals that everyone would consider to be the obvious winners and losers in a race. They portray the animals in a unique way that gives them human qualities that we are familiar with.
The underdog is considered the protagonist in these fables and both authors portray them as likely losers in a physical challenge. However, as the story unfolds the obvious winners change due to the negative human qualities the antagonists possess. The messages of the stories are both related to perseverance, and that sometimes being conceded and boastful about your skills can end in disaster. There is also the message that one should not judge others simply by how they look. There are many other interpretations of this story as well, and this just scratches the surface of the symbolism in the two folktales. The messages of the two stories are values that everyone can apply to their daily lives.
When the stories reach their conclusions the readers are left with many options on how they choose to interpret the message. The theme of both stories are the same, however the differences allow them to be interpreted many ways. It is mostly agreed upon by literature experts that the message in “The Tortoise and the Hare” is that slow and steady wins the race, and taking your time to do things right the first time is worth it. The message in “The Fox and the Frog” the message is that it is sometimes better to work smarter, not harder. Both stories share the message that judging others by their appearance is not an intelligent thing to do. They also share the idea that being boastful and conceded can end in embarrassment.