This post is part of an occasional series called Finding God in Children’s Literature, in which I look at children’s books in light of the Bible and Sacred Tradition. All correlations between these books and the Christian faith are my own insights, unless otherwise noted. You may quote me or link to these posts, but please do not re-blog them or use these ideas as though they were your own. Thank you.
Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss is the story of a proud and power-hungry reptile. He starts out as king of a pond of turtles. Unsatisfied with that, he commands his subjects to stand on one another’s’ shells in a stack, while he climbs to the top. The stack of turtles keeps growing, despite the protests of the turtle on the bottom, named Mack. Yertle believes he is king of all he can see, so the higher his throne of turtles goes, the more powerful he becomes. Eventually, he over steps and the stack of turtles collapses. At last, Yertle is only King of the Mud.
Theodore Geisel, who is better known to the world as Dr. Seuss, was a political cartoonist before he began writing children’s books. He later said he meant Yertle the Turtle as a condemnation of Hitler. But there is a much more ancient culture than Nazi Germany that had striking similarities to Yertle’s kingdom–Babylon.
Building a tower to heaven
The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the most famous in the Old Testament–despite the fact that it is only 9 verses long (Genesis 11:1-9). The people of Babylon said to one another, “Come, let us make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven: and let us make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands” (verse 4).
Yertle, the king of Sala-ma-Sond (a nice, Middle-eastern-sounding name), says:
“If I could sit high, how much greater I’d be!
What a king! I’d be ruler of all that I see!”
He is temporarily satisfied when he can see 40 miles from his new throne. Then the moon rises above him, signaling that not everything is under Yertle’s control:
“What’s THAT?” snorted Yertle. “Say, what IS that thing
That dares to be higher than Yertle the King?
I shall not allow it! I’ll go higher still!
I’ll build my throne higher! I can and I will!
I’ll call some more turtles. I’ll stack ‘em to heaven!
I need ’bout five thousand, six hundred and seven!”
If Yertle plans for his tower to go as high as heaven, he plans to rule over all creation–if not God Himself.
Echoes of Adam’s fall
The Tower of Babel is in some ways the story of Adam and Eve all over again. All languages on earth came from the confusion of tongues at Shinar in Babylon, just as all people descend from Adam. Like Adam, the people of Shinar sought to be like gods. The tried to make a way to heaven on their own. Pride motivated them.
Pride also ruled Yertle. Yes, I said “ruled” purposely. The irony is that he thinks he can control everything in creation, but he cannot even control his own passions. His anger and false sense of greatness cause him to ignore Mack’s pleadings for mercy. How dare someone else–and the turtle at the very bottom, who is therefore the least significant of all–question Yertle’s decisions?
But it is Mack who ultimately brings the tower down–by a lowly burp that shakes the whole structure so that it collapses. As in many Old Testament stories, it is the insignificant and the humble who conquers the proud.
Jesus rejects an earthly kingdom
In the New Testament, the Devil tempts Jesus in a similar way in which the people of Babylon were tempted:
Again the devil took him up into a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, And said to him: All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me (Matthew 4:8-9).
Like the people of Shinar and Yertle, Jesus looks out over the whole world. He can choose to rule over it on His own terms, or humbly accept God the Father’s plan for Him. He chooses the latter, and so, of course, should we.
Yertle the Turtle provides a great opportunity to discuss the connections between Adam, Babel, and Jesus. It also portrays our need for humility in an entertaining manner that even young children can understand. This remains true, even if Dr. Suess did not have the Tower of Babel in mind when he wrote it.