That night’s good night story came from a stack of German books from my wife’s childhood.
“Die Hase und der Igel.” I read the title aloud as I opened the book to read to my kids. The Hare and the Hedgehog.
“That’s cute,” I thought, “The Germans replaced the tortoise in ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ with a hedgehog.” I imagined an adorable, spiky hedgehog facing off in a running race against the boisterous hare. At that moment it made perfect sense.
The story began as it always did: The hedgehog minding his own business when suddenly an annoying, intrusive hare appears out of nowhere and begins hassling the poor rodent. Usually you’d figure a guy like that’s a Mormon. Or a Republican. But he’s not, he’s just a big rabbit.
The teasing escalates until the hedgehog and the hare agree to a race the hare wanted all along. And then the German version gets weird: Rather than tooling around a forest path, the duo agree to face off in a simple sprint from one end of the hedgehog’s field to the other.
“Fair enough,” I thought. “The story’s over quicker that way.” Hoping for a fast end to my parenting duties, I began contemplating whether to end the day with wine, beer or camembert.
Then, the hedgehog did a very strange thing, something that isn’t in that Aesop fable we all know: The hedgehog calls for his wife and tells her to dress just like him.
“Wow,” I thought, thinking the Germans had not only introduced a new animal into the ancient tale, they’d also included a bit of cross-dressing. “Those liberal Germans!”
Then comes the hedgehog’s strategy: He and his wife will just stand at each end of the field and every time the hare arrives, he’ll think he’s already been beat by a hedgehog that hasn’t even broken a sweat.
What? What happened to slow and steady wins the race? What happened to perseverance? What happened to doing the right thing despite miserable odds? Where’s the morality play?
The hedgehog is going to CHEAT? I was so incensed I even thought in all caps. Liberal Germans indeed!
The hare and the hedgehog progresses just as the wily hedgehog predicts: After the first race, the rabbit thinks his spiky competitor is beating him and continues to propose a rematch in the hopes he will finally emerge victorious. The hare can’t, of course, and, depending on the version, either admits defeat, goes insane or – yes – dies of exhaustion. What a kids story!
For years I thought this poetic license with the original Aesop Fable stood for all that was wrong with Germany. Now I think it’s why German kids seem better prepared for life: They already know that assholes are best countered with fraud, deceit and gender bending.
I’ve also learned that the Tortoise and the Hare and the Hase und Igel are two different stories, one by Aesop and one stolen from Aesop by Germany’s own Shakespeares: The Brothers Grimm.
Once again the Germans are doing it right: Slow and steady wins the race is a garbage axiom. Anyone over 10 knows it’s untrue and as someone who’s run the Berlin Marathon twice I can tell you it doesn’t win the race at all: Slow and steady gets you 32,001th place, or 4,291th place in your age/sex group.
Next time I’ll dress like my wife.