The Importance of Allegories: The Tortoise and The Birds


At first, when I read chapter 11 of Things Fall Apart, I completely overlooked the idea that the story of the greedy tortoise was in fact an allegory. When we went over the allegorical folktale in class, I began to wonder why people all around the world continuously utilize these folktales. Every culture has their own set of allegories and folk tales that highlights their unique cultural beliefs and values. Although these allegories may seem simple in plot and character, they actually hint at previous or future events while demonstrating a moral lesson or principle.

In the novel, Things Fall Apart, one mother, Ekwefl, retells the allegorical story of a deceitful tortoise to her daughter, Ezinma, during their nightly retelling of  folk tales. The story also allegorically references to the future where the intelligent and cunning white man will want to seize all of the splendors of the land and change their culture entirely. The allegorical story begins with a tortoise “full of cunning” who realized that the birds were going to enjoy a feast in the sky. The tortoise represents the colonial invasion that is about to strike. The use of the word cunning to describe the tortoise also gives an accurate description of the “cunning” white colonizers, who use their wits and skill to deceive the Igbo people into helping them achieve their goal.

Cunning Tortoise The spoken allegorical story continues as the tortoise  begged with birds to help him make wings so that he too could enjoy their feast. Although the birds knew he was full of mischief, they truly believed he had changed and wanted to help them with his great orator skills. This part of the story also becomes allegorical in that the Igbo people did not trust the new white man. They had heard stories of what the white colonists could accomplish yet as seen in the story, the Igbo people might help the colonists because in their culture they believe that people can change their demeanor.

While this folk tale works as an allegory for the colonization of African it also displays many truths of human existence. A prominent truth displayed in the folk tale was the demonstration of what happens when one becomes too greedy. The tortoise who wanted more than those around him literally had a tragic fall due to his greed. While the tortoise became greedy about food, the concept of greed relates to other people in the novel.

This inherent human greed can apply to both the future colonizers of the Igbo and the future of Okonkwo. The future colonization of Africa will happen because of greed and the need to assert themselves as the superior race. They have a desire for power which far succeeds the care they should have for those they might hurt along the way. In the same way that the tortoise thought about only himself during the feast, the colonizers will destroy the African people yet, will only think about their rise to power.

Colonialism and Greed

Colonialism and Greed

Okonkwo also deals with the tragic flaw of greed in that he has a strong and selfish desire to be the most powerful male in the clan. Through the folk tale, we see that if Okonkwo continues on his greedy and selfish road to power, he too will fall and break into pieces.

In the end, this allegory reminded me of the importance of keeping allegorical stories alive and retold. They keep our historical culture alive and remind us of events that happened in a simple and enjoyable way. By keeping these allegorical stories around, we are reminded of deeper morals or truths that could prevent us from our own tragic flaw.


2 responses »

  1. I agree that allegories should be kept alive. They encase such valuable life lessons that reflect on one’s morals. You mentioned how Oknokwo’s tragic flaw is greed, which is revealed in the beginning of the novel when we find out that he wants to control the clan and have everything go his way. In the end, it unfortunately came full circle when he comes back from exile to find everything has changed, and he commits suicide. That is why this allegory is so relative: his greed and resentment for change made him lose out in the end. You related this allegory and Okonkwo perfectly.

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