Top Five Literary Tortoises

Big news this week in the world of Emilybooks.


Meet Daphne!

This beloved belated birthday present from the husband joined us on Saturday morning, when we went and bought her from a very friendly pet shop in Essex. You’ll be pleased to hear that she is settling in well – enjoying bathing in the warm rays of her special heat lamp before pootling off to explore our flat.

Daphne on the rug

It is very peculiar trying to get on with my work while Daphne is here, scrabbling around. It is lovely to have a bit of company, a wise reptilian companion. I feel sure that we are already establishing a rapport – funny things like we both yawned at the same time this morning. And she wouldn’t touch her breakfast until I started munching my bowl of cereal. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this.

As I am so tortoise-brained this morning, and to welcome this marvellous little creature into the world of EmilyBooks, here are my Top Five literary tortoises.

Esio Trot

Esio TrotAlfie from Esio Trot must come first.

This is a delightful tortoise love story, written by Roald Dahl, and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Shy Mr Hoppy pines for Mrs Silver, who lives in the flat below. They strike up a friendship over her tortoise Alfie, who she worries won’t grow. Mr Hoppy comes up with a very clever plan. He writes down the following words on a piece of paper:









He tells Mrs Silver to whisper this spell to her tortoise three times a day and, he assures her, Alfie will get bigger. They are of course normal words written backwards!

Mr Hoppy bulk buys tortoises in all different sizes and when Mrs Silver is out, reaches down to her balcony and swaps Alfie for a very slightly bigger tortoise. And so on… Mrs Silver is at first thrilled that Alfie seems to be getting bigger, but of course women have a habit of changing their minds and are never happy with something for long…

Having bonded over Alfie, Mr Hoppy plucks up the courage to ask Mrs Silver to marry him and everyone – including the original Alfie – lives happily ever after. Who knew tortoises could be such a fruitful conversation opener?!

Esio Trot

The Tortoise and the Hare

Yes, there is Aesop’s fable, which we all know so well, with its moral that slow and steady wins the race. I have to say, little Daphne is surprisingly speedy. Look at her go!

Daphne and duct tape

The Tortoise and The HareI am thinking, however, of the novel by Elizabeth Jenkins, which I wrote about at length here. This wonderful, too-often overlooked novel from the 1950s is another tortoise love story, although rather more complicated, adult and with only a metaphorical tortoise.

Lovely, gentle self-effacing Imogen is married to brute of a bullying barrister husband Evelyn. Their neighbour – stout, brash Blanche Silcox – makes a play for Evelyn … which of these utterly contrasting women will win?

What is so clever about Jenkins’s book is that as you read it, you’re forever questioning who is the tortoise and who the hare. I suppose it depends a little on where you think the finish line is. Is Evelyn really the prize, or is it independence and freedom from such a brutish man?

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead RevisitedThe poor tortoise in Brideshead Revisited has been horribly abused. Julia come into the drawing room telling Lady Marchmain to look at the Christmas present that Rex has given her:

It was a small tortoise with Julia’s initials set in diamonds in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rub, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, antediluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake.

Just a few pages later, the poor tortoise, jewels and all, is said to have buried itself. We learn this soon after Charles Ryder leaves Brideshead, telling himself he shall never go back, and that:

I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.

A diamond-encrusted tortoise would get you far indeed into the nether world. Not as far, however, as Catholicism, as Waugh is keen to point out.

Brideshead tortoise


momoThere is a wonderful tortoise called Cassiopeia in Momo by Michael Ende. I read this book when I was about ten and for years felt terrified of the sinister Men in Grey, who:

had an uncanny knack of making themselves so inconspicuous that you either overlooked them or forgot ever seeing them… Since nobody noticed them, nobody stopped to wonder where they had come from, or indeed, were still coming from, for their numbers continue to grow with every passing day.

I used to associate them with men in suits. Perhaps that’s the point. It is a wonderfully anti-establishment children’s book.

Momo is a little orphan girl, with a knack for listening to people. When the Men in Grey turn up, they persuade everyone that they have to ‘save time’, which results in them stopping doing everything fun and always being in a rush. It’s an awful trick, of course. Everyone becomes miserable thanks to their time-saving, but the Men in Grey need everyone else’s time to survive, smoking their sinister cigars of hour lilies. Yes, it is a surreal book.

Momo fights against the grey men with the aid of Professor Hora and his tortoise, Cassiopeia, who can see half an hour into the future and – better yet – can communicate, helping Momo by making words appear on her shell.

 Michael Ende with tortoise

Apparently Michael Ende had a soft spot for tortoises. I don’t blame him!

Baby tortoise

Tortoises by DH LawrenceI shall end with D.H. Lawrence’s beautiful poem about a baby tortoise:

You know what it is to be born alone,

Baby tortoise!

The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,

Not yet awake,

And remain lapsed on earth,

Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open

Like some iron door;

To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base

And reach your skinny neck

And take your first bite at some dim bit of herbage,

Alone, small insect,

Tiny bright-eye,

Slow one.

To take your first solitary bite

And move on your slow, solitary hunt.

Your bright, dark little eye,

Your eye of a dark disturbed night,

Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,

So indomitable.

No one ever heard you complain.

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple

And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,

Rowing slowly forward.

Wither away, small bird?

Rather like a baby working its limbs,

Except that you make slow, ageless progress

And a baby makes none.

The touch of sun excites you,

And the long ages, and the lingering chill

Make you pause to yawn,

Opening your impervious mouth,

Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;

Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,

Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,

Your face, baby tortoise.

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple

And look with laconic, black eyes?

Or is sleep coming over you again,

The non-life?

You are so hard to wake.

Are you able to wonder?

Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the first life

Looking round

And slowly pitching itself against the inertia

Which had seemed invincible?

The vast inanimate,

And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye,


Nay, tiny shell-bird.

What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row against,

What an incalculable inertia.


Little Ulysses, fore-runner,

No bigger than my thumb-nail,

Buon viaggio.

All animate creation on your shoulder,

Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.

The ponderous, preponderate,

Inanimate universe;

And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.

How vivid your travelling seems now, in the troubled sunshine,

Stoic, Ulyssean atom;

Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.

Voiceless little bird,

Resting your head half out of your wimple

In the slow dignity of your eternal pause.

Alone, with no sense of being alone,

And hence six times more solitary;

Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through immemorial ages

Your little round house in the midst of chaos.

Over the garden earth,

Small bird,

Over the edge of all things.


With your tail tucked a little on one side

Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

All life carried on your shoulder,

Invincible fore-runner.

Isn’t it brilliant?!

Let us hope that little Daphne will inspire me to similar great heights of tortoise literature.

Daphne coming out

And yes, that book on to which she is climbing is none other than The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.


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16 Responses to “Top Five Literary Tortoises”

  1. Three Well Beings Says:

    Just wonderful! Hope you thoroughly enjoy and have many, many loving years with Daphne. We are raising an African Sulcata Tortoise that is only 6 years old but is now about 35 pounds. Occasionally I write about Darwin and with blogging exposure, he’s developed a little fan club. 🙂 Daphne is really sweet!

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks! Darwin looks very dashing. Does he get on well with your pet rabbit, or do they slightly bewilder each other? I know what you mean about them getting stuck in corners – they are such curious little creatures.

      • Three Well Beings Says:

        How nice of you to take a peek, Emily. Pinky and Darwin don’t mix too closely, but poor Darwin will come up to the hutch and spy the greens in Pinky’s diet and then he pouts. We had to change his diet and eliminate giving him as much food as we’d been providing. We were giving him broccoli, which is protein rich, and that created the pyramids on his shell. We thought we were so generous! A blogger saw the the photos and alerted us to the fact that the pyramids are a deformity! We really didn’t know. So now he is eating grass and a little calcium-enhanced romaine, maybe twice a week, and he is slowly growing accustomed to eating what he would eat on the African plains. These reptiles are complex, as you’ll soon learn. Not at all hard, but just unique. And they have so much more personality than most people would think. I hope you’ll share about Daphne from time to time. I love that she can be part of your indoor life! 🙂 Debra

  2. Novroz Says:

    This is a cool post!! I am thinking about rebloging it but maybe tomorrow as I have just posted my latest post yesterday.

    I haven’t yet read those books but those are perfect for my turtle blog. Aren’t turtles and tortoises so adorable?

    I have been running a blog written by turtles for the past three years (this gravatar leads to my own blog not my turtle’s) and been meaning to have a book review but I haven’t read any turtle related book yet 😦

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Novroz. Your tortoises are very sweet. Kroten looks particularly exotic and beautiful! Hope you enjoy some of these tortoise books. Esio Trot really is a heavenly, funny children’s classic.

  3. Nicola Says:

    Hi, what a highly original and fabulous post! I used to read Esio Trot to my daughters and they loved it! I’m very fond of the Elizabeth Jenkins novel, too.

  4. td Whittle Says:

    Daphne is adorable. I have never read, anywhere, a post on literary tortoises. Thanks for this. It’s a delight.

  5. td Whittle Says:

    Emily, what breed of tortoise is Daphne?

  6. td Whittle Says:

    She is lovely indeed. Thanks for the link. I will read it. Cheers!

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Hello there, I just stumbled upon your blog by accident and on such an interesting post! Speaking of tortoises, I wonder if you know of the fate of the poor tortoise in Huysmans’ novel A Rebours. Much like our friend in Brideshead Revisited, his owner has his shell plated with gold and then inlaid with jewels and the poor guy is crushed to death due to the immense weight on his back 😦 It must be symbolism for something, I just haven’t been able to figure it out yet. I hope you continue this blog, it’s splendid!

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks so much! I haven’t come across that particular poor little tortoise, alas, thanks for drawing my attention to it.

  8. Stephen Alexander Says:

    Dear Emily,

    Just came across your tortoise post …

    I enjoyed reading it, but was a little surprised you didn’t mention the bejewelled creature in “Against Nature” (À Rebours) by J-K Huysmans …

    Here’s my take on the above, in case you’re interested …

    Kind regards,


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