Oral Literature: The Victorious Tortoise

The tortoise is a very clever fellow. He has to use his wits to get along in the world because he has neither the strength of the lion nor the speed of the hare. However his cleverness doesn’t make him popular with everyone, partly because he is inclined to be a bit conceited about it.

For a long time he had irritated the elephant, until one day the elephant became so annoyed that he lost his temper. “You think you’re very smart – he shouted -. But if it came to a fair fight I’d win every time!”

“Do you think so?”  Sneered the tortoise. “I know so!” said the elephant, and tore up the trunk of a tree and smashed it like a matchstick just to show what he could do. The tortoise moved away a little, and watched the performance, but he was not very much impressed.

“I think you would find you are mistaken,” he said calmly -. However if you like we shall try it.”

“You mean you will fight me?” said the elephant.

“ Exactly. Just at dawn tomorrow morning, on the bank of the river.”

“Why the bank of the river?” The elephant asked suspiciously. “Because the ground is level there, and because its near where I live. As you started this, I am at least entitled to choose the spot.”

“The river is as good a place as any for the disposal of the body,” the elephant agreed.

“I hope yours won’t block up the river,” the tortoise commented.

The elephant put back his head and trumpeted loudly. He shook with laughter until tears ran down his cheeks.”Oh, go away, before I die of laughter!” he sobbed at last.

The tortoise moved away at his usual slow pace. “You’ll laugh on the other side of your face my lad,” he vowed. As he walked off he saw smiles on the faces of other animals that had heard his encounter with the elephant, but he treated them with contempt, an expression that a tortoise assumes with great ease as you have probably noticed.

He made his way to the riverbank where he found the hippopotamus wallowing comfortably in the mud. Now the hippo is an unsociable fellow. If people let him alone, he lets them alone, but if there is any attempt to provoke him he can be very bad tempered indeed.

“Ugh –  snuffled the tortoise -. How can you bear to wallow in all that nasty mud. Such a horrible smell!”

“I like it – the hippo growled -. My family have always taken mud baths.”

“I think it’s a perfectly filthy habit,” said the tortoise.

“No one asked you what you thought! – grunted the hippo -. No one asked you to come here either!”
“I have just as much right to be here as you have”,  snapped the tortoise.

“Then keep a still tongue in your head,” the hippo told him.

“You know, your manners leave much to be desired. What a pity you are such a rough diamond. I really should try to do something about it!”

The hippo rose from the mud with gigantic upheaval. “Oh, you would, would you -, he retorted, his little eyes alight with rage -. I don’t think so much of your manners myself. In fact I’d like to give you a lesson or two!”

“Are you threatening me?” asked the tortoise calmly.

“Call it what you like, I’m coming to teach you a lesson “, the hippo replied, and started to wade towards the tortoise.

“Stop! –  said the tortoise -. I don’t believe in any rough and tumble business. If you want a fight we’ll have one in a proper manner. I’ll meet you here at dawn tomorrow, and then we’ll see who is the best man!”

The hippo gave an unpleasant laugh. “Excellent, nothing would suit me better. It’s nice and cool then. Don’t forget to come though, will you?”

“I certainly shan’t forget – said the tortoise, and went away looking very satisfied, as indeed he might be, for his plot was working out perfectly.

News of the contest between the elephant and the tortoise got around, but no one knew about the arrangement of the second fight, because the hippo was too unsociable to talk to anyone. The tortoise was perfectly well aware of that; it was in fact an essential part of his plot.

Shortly before dawn the tortoise rose from his bed by the riverbank, and peered through the mists for the elephant. Right enough he soon saw the elephant lumbering along followed by a large circle of his friends who had come to see the fight.

The tortoise then looked into the river, and there was the hippo lying in wait. As soon as he heard the noise of the approaching crowd he stood perfectly still, so that it was impossible for anyone to detect him in the mist. That also was just the way the tortoise wanted things, and he moved carefully behind some reeds, and waited, until the elephant reached the bank.

“Ho – the elephant chuckled -. So my brave friend has not arrived. I wonder if he has thought better of it.” Just as the elephant passed the spot where the tortoise was hidden, the tortoise grabbed the tip of the elephant’s trunk. The elephant was so surprised and hurt that for a moment he was helpless, and during that critical moment the tortoise swung himself straight out over the riverbank towards the hippo. The hippo naturally made a grab at his foe, but in his excitement he caught the elephant’s trunk, while the tortoise wriggled free, and dropped into the mud.

With a wild heave the hippo dragged the elephant over the bank and into the water, where the two of them thrashed round wildly, and the crowd unaware of what happened, were amazed at the extraordinary strength of the tortoise, who was actually sitting at a safe distance down river watching the gigantic struggles of the elephant and the hippo, who were badly mauled, and had fought themselves to a standstill before they discovered what had occurred. Then they dragged themselves to the bank, bruised and exhausted.

“What on earth made you attack me?” asked the elephant. The hippo tried to explain what had happened, and became very excited, but during lengthy and confused explanations, and while practically everyone, including the onlookers, almost had a fight with everyone else, the elephant and the hippo realised that the tortoise had played a very cunning trick on them.

So they apologised to each other, and parted, after vowing that never again would either of them become involved in any arguments with the wily tortoise. The onlookers came to the same conclusion, and that is why the tortoise is always left severely alone. No other animal ever attacks him, and they are all careful to keep on polite terms with him. (Folktale from Zambia)