The Tortoise That Wanted to Fly

and other folktales of
Aarne-Thompson-Uther types 225 and 225A
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2013


Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Type 225

An Eagle and a Tortoise

Æsop or Anianus

A tortoise was thinking with himself, how irksome a sort of life it was, so spend all his days in a hole, with a house upon his head, when so many other creatures had the liberty to divert themselves in the free, fresh air, and to ramble about at pleasure. So that the humor took him one day, and he must needs get an eagle to teach him to fly. The eagle would fain have put him off, and told him 'twas a thing against nature, and common sense; but (according to the freak of the wilful part of the world) the more that one was against it, the more the other was for it. And when the eagle saw that the tortoise would not be said Nay, she took him up a matter of steeple-high into the air, and there turn'd him loose th shift for himself. That is to say: She dropt him down, Squash upon a rock, that dash'd him to pieces.

The Moral: Nothing can be either safe, or easy, that's unnatural.

The Tortoise and the Eagle


A tortoise, discontented with his lowly life, and envious of the birds he saw disporting themselves in the air, begged an eagle to teach him to fly. The eagle protested that it was idle for him to try, as nature had not providfed him with wings; but the tortoise pressed him with entreaties and promises of treasure, insisting that it could only be a question of learning the craft of the air. So at length the eagle consented to do the best he could for him, and picked him up in his talons. Soaring with him to a great height in the sky he then let him go, and the wretched tortoise fell headlong and was dashed to pieces on a rock.

The Turtle and the Eagle

Leo Tolstoy (after Æsop)

A turtle asked an eagle to teach her how to fly. The eagle advised her not to try, as she was not fit for it; but she insister. The eagle took her in his claws, raised her up, and dropped her; she fell on stones and broke to pieces.

When Mr. Terrapin Went Riding on the Clouds

USA (North Carolina)

Have they done tell you 'bout ole Mr. Grumble Terrapin? Well, one day ole Brer Terrapin was mighty bad, and making up a poor mouth, and a-grumbling and a-fussing, 'cause he have to creep on the ground. When he meet Brer Rabbit, he grumble 'cause he can't run like Brer Rabbit, an' when he meet Brer Buzzard he grumble 'cause he can't fly in the clouds like Brer Buzzard, and so grumble, grumble, constant.

Well, the folkses stand it till they nigh 'bout wore out, and so they 'gree amongst theyselves, the folkses did, and they 'gree how they gwine take Brer Terrapin up in the clouds and drop him.

So one day, when Brer Terrapin grumble to Miss Crow he can't fly in the clouds, Miss Crow she say, she did, "Brer Terrapin, go get on my back, and I give you a ride in the clouds."

So Brer Terrapin, he mighty set up in he mind, and he get on Miss Crow's back, and they sail off fine, and they sails this yer way, and they sails that yer way. Brer Terrapin; he look down on all he friends, and he feel that proudful he don't take no noticement when they take off they hats to hisself.

But presently Miss Crow she get tired, and so she say, old Miss Crow did, "This yer just as high as I can go, Brer Terrapin, but here come Brer Buzzard; he can fly heap higher than what I can, Brer Buzzard can, and you just get on his back, and he sail you heap higher."

So Brer Terrapin, he get on Brer Buzzard back, and they sail up higher and higher, till Brer Terrapin can't make out he friends when they take off they hats to hisself, and he say that the bestest day of his life, Brer Terrapin do, and they sails over the woods, and they sails over the waters.

Then Brer Buzzard, he get broke down a-toting Brer Terrapin, and he 'low: "This here just as high as I can go, Brer Terrapin, but there come Miss Hawk; she can go a heap higher than what I can," and Miss Hawk she say she be delighted to take Brer Terrapin to ride, -- that just what Miss Hawk done tell Brer Terrapin.

So Brer Terrapin, he get on Miss Hawk's back, and they go higher and higher, and Brer Terrapin he 'joy it fine, and he say to hisself, "I'se getting up in the clouds now, sure 'nough."

But directly here come King Eagle, and he say, "Oho, Brer Terrapin, you don't call this yer sailing. Oho, Sis Hawk, if you gwine sail Brer Terrapin, why don't you take him up where he can get a sight?"

But Miss Hawk, she 'bliged to 'low that just as high as she can go.

Then King Eagle say, "Well, just get on my back, and get a sure 'nough ride."

So Brer Terrapin, he get on King Eagle's back, and they go up and up, till ole Brer Terrapin he get skeered, and he beg King Eagle to get down; but King Eagle, he just laugh and sail higher and higher, till old Brer Terrapin say to hisself he wish he neber study 'bout flying in the clouds, and he say, Brer Terrapin did: "Oh please, King Eagle, take me down; I that skeered, I 'se 'bout to drop," and he fault hisself cause he was such a grumbling fool, and he say to hisself, if he ever get on he own foots once more, he never grumble 'cause he can't fly in the clouds, but King Eagle, he just make like he gwine up higher and higher, and poor old Brer Terrapin, he dat skeered, he can't hold on much more, and he 'bout lose he hold.

Just den he think how he got a spool of thread in he pocket, what Miss Terrapin done send him to fetch home from the store that day, and he tie the end to King Eagle's leg, unbeknownst to him, Brer Terrapin did, and then he drop de spool, and he take hold of the thread, and hold it fast in he hands, and he slip down to the ground, and you never hear old Brer Terrapin grumble 'cause he can't run or fly, 'cause the old man he done fly that yer day to satisfy hisself, that he did, sure's yer born, he did fly that yer day.

Type 225A

The Talkative Tortoise

The Jataka Tales

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the future Buddha was born in a minister's family; and when he grew up, he became the king's adviser in things temporal and spiritual.

Now this king was very talkative; while he was speaking, others had no opportunity for a word. And the future Buddha, wanting to cure this talkativeness of his, was constantly seeking for some means of doing so.

At that time there was living, in a pond in the Himalayan Mountains, a tortoise. Two young wild ducks who came to feed there made friends with him. And one day, when they had become very intimate with him, they said to the tortoise, "Friend tortoise, the place where we live, at the Golden Cave on Mount Beautiful in the Himalayan country, is a delightful spot. Will you come there with us?"

"But how can I get there?"

"We can take you, if you can only hold your tongue, and will say nothing to anybody."

"Oh, that I can do. Take me with you."

"That's right," said they. And making the tortoise bite hold of a stick, they themselves took the two ends in their teeth, and flew up into the air.

Seeing him thus carried by the ducks, some villagers called out, "Two wild ducks are carrying a tortoise along on a stick!"

Whereupon the tortoise wanted to say, "If my friends choose to carry me, what is that to you, you wretched slaves?" So just as the swift flight of the wild ducks had brought him over the king's palace in the city of Benares, he let go of the stick he was biting, and falling in the open courtyard, split in two!

And there arose a universal cry, "A tortoise has fallen in the open courtyard, and has split in two!"

The king, taking the future Buddha, went to the place, surrounded by his courtiers, and looking at the tortoise, he asked the Bodisat, "Teacher, how has it possible that he has fallen here?"

The future Buddha thought to himself, "Long expecting, wishing to admonish the king, I have sought for some means of doing so. This tortoise must have made friends with the wild ducks; and they must have made him bite hold of the stick, and have flown up into the air to take him to the hills. But he, being unable to hold his tongue when he hears anyone else talk, must have wanted to say something, and let go of the stick; and so must have fallen down from the sky, and thus lost his life." And saying, "Truly, oh king, those who are called chatterboxes -- people whose words have no end -- come to grief like this," he uttered these verses:

Verily, the tortoise killed himself
While uttering his voice;
Though he was holding tight to stick,
By a word he slew himself.
Behold him then, oh excellent by strength!
And speak wise words, not out of season.
You see how, by his talking overmuch,
The tortoise fell into this wretched plight!

The king saw that he was himself referred to, and said, "Oh teacher, are you speaking of us?"

And the Bodisat spoke openly, and said, "Oh great king, be it you, or be it any other, whoever talks beyond measure meets with some mishap like this."

And the king henceforth refrained himself, and became a man of few words.

The Disobedient Tortoise

The Panchatantra

In a certain pond there once lived a tortoise by the name of Kamburgriva (Shell-Neck). He had two friends who belonged to the goose family and who had grown very fond of him. One was named Sankata (Small) and the other Vikata (Large). They regularly came to the pond's bank where they told one another many stories about the wise ones among the gods, Brahmans, and kings. At sunset they would return to their nests.

However, in the course of time the pond began to dry up, due to the lack of rain. Pained by this misfortune, the two said, "Alas, friend, this pond has become nothing but mud. How will you stay alive? Our hearts are saddened."

Hearing this, Kamburgriva said, "I cannot live without water. Let us think of a solution! For it is said, 'The wise always rush to aid their relatives and friends in time of need.' Therefore fetch a strong stick and seek a pond that still contains much water. I shall grasp the stick which you will carry in your teeth from both ends and thus take me to the pond."

"Friend, that we will do!" the two replied, "but you must remain as speechless as a saint who has taken an oath of silence, lest you fall from the stick and break into pieces."

The tortoise said, "For certain. I promise to say nothing from now until we have landed at the pond."

They proceeded as planned, and from his flight Kamburgriva looked down upon the city beneath him, whose startled inhabitants were shouting, "Look! Look! Two birds are carrying something like a carriage!"

Hearing their cries, Kamburgriva began to speak. He wanted to say, "What are you shouting about?" but before he had half uttered the words, he fell earthward and was torn into pieces by the city's inhabitants.

The Tortoise and the Two Swans

The Kathá Sarit Ságara; or, Ocean of the Streams of Story

There was in a certain lake a tortoise, named Kambugríva, and he had two swans for friends, Vikata and Sankata. Once on a time the lake was dried up by drought, and they wanted to go to another lake; so the tortoise said to them, "Take me also to the lake you are desirous of going to."

When the two swans heard this, they said to their friend the tortoise, "The lake to which we wish to go is a tremendous distance off; but, if you wish to go there too, you must do what we tell you. You must take in your teeth a stick held by us, and while traveling through the air, you must remain perfectly silent, otherwise you will fall and be killed."

The tortoise agreed, and took the stick in his teeth, and the two swans flew up into the air, holding the two ends of it. And gradually the two swans, carrying the tortoise, drew near that lake, and were seen by some men living in a town below; and the thoughtless tortoise heard them making a chattering, while they were discussing with one another, what the strange thing could be that the swans were carrying.

So the tortoise asked the swans what the chattering below was about, and in so doing let go the stick from its mouth, and falling down to the earth, was there killed by the men.

The Tortoise and the Birds


A tortoise desired to change its place of residence, so he asked an eagle to carry him to his new home, promising her a rich reward for her trouble. The eagle agreed, and seizing the tortoise by the shell with her talons, soared aloft. On their way they met a crow, who said to the eagle, "Tortoise is good eating."

"The shell is too hard," said the eagle in reply.

"The rocks will soon crack the shell," was the crow's answer; and the eagle, let fall the tortoise on a sharp rock, and the two birds made a hearty meal off the tortoise.

Never soar aloft on an enemy's pinions.

The Tortoise and the Two Ducks

Jean de La Fontaine

A tortoise once, with an empty head,
Great sick of her safe but monotonous home,
Resolved on some distant shore to tread;
It is ever the cripple that loves to roam.
Two Ducks, to whom our friend repaired
To gossip o'er her bold intent,
Their full approval straight declared;
And, pointing to the firmament,
Said, "By that road -- 'tis broad and ample --
We'll seek Columbia's mighty range,
See peoples, laws, and manners strange;
Ulysses shall be our example."
(Ulysses would have been astounded
At being with this scheme confounded.)

The tortoise liking much this plan,
Straightway the friendly ducks began
To see how one for flight unfitted
Might through the realms of air be flitted
At length within her jaws they fitted
A trusty stick, and seizing each an end,
With many a warning cry -- "Hold fast! hold fast!"
Bore up to heaven their adventurous friend.

The people wondered as the cortege passed,
And truly it was droll to see
A tortoise and her house in the Ducks' company.
"A miracle!" the wondering mob surprises:
"Behold, on clouds the great Queen Tortoise rises!"

"A queen!" the tortoise answered; "yes, forsooth;
Make no mistake -- I am -- in honest truth."

Alas! why did she speak? She was a chattering dunce:
For as her jaws unclose, the stick slips out at once,
And down amidst the gaping crowds she sank,
A wretched victim to her claims to rank.

Self-pride, a love of idle speaking,
And wish to be for ever seeking
A power that nature ne'er intended,
Are follies close allied, and from one stock descended.

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Revised March 21, 2013.