In chapter 11, who or what is the tortoise? What is the purpose of this story?

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The story of the tortoise is a fable, one of two traditional Nigerian stories presented by Achebe in the novel (the other being the story of the mosquito). On the surface, it fulfills a standard role of the fable, explaining a natural phenomenon. In this case, it explains why the tortoise has a cracked shell. In the fable, the tortoise is a great speaker who convinces the birds to take him along. He tells every one to take a new name for the feast, choosing the name “All of you” for himself. The men in the sky declared they had prepared the feast for “all of you” (meaning all of the birds). But since that was the name Tortoise had chosen, he ate the best portions of food and drank two pots of palm wine. The birds only got the leftovers. They were very angry and left Tortoise in the sky without wings to fly. Tortoise sent a message with Parrot asking his wife to put soft things around his home so he could fall and land safely. However, Parrot  told Tortoise’s wife to put hard things around their home. When Tortoise jumped from the sky, he crashed. He did not die, but his shell broke into pieces and a great medicine man had to mend his shell.

However, the story may also be read as an allegory of resistance. Tortoise may be seen as an invading country, and the birds the colonized people. While Tortoise uses language to deceive the birds, Parrot uses language to deceive Tortoise. This is similar to the conversations between the missionaries and the villagers of Umuofia. Both use language to entrap the other. The conflict in the fable is resolved when Tortoise falls upon his own weapons. Achebe may be indicating that both language and war are necessary for oppressed people to resist domination.

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