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A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual. Some such stories are exaggerations of actual events, fish stories ('the fish that got away') such as, "that fish was so big, why I tell ya', it nearly sank the boat when I pulled it in!" Other tall tales are completely fictional tales in a familiar setting, such as the American Old West or the beginning of the Industrial Age. Tall tales are often told so as to make the narrator seem to have been a part of the story. They are usually humorous or witty. The line between myth and tall tale is distinguished primarily by age; many myths exaggerate the exploits of their heroes, but in tall tales the exaggeration looms large, to the extent of becoming the whole of the story.

Rabelais' giant, Pantagruel, sleeps after his encounter; curious onlookers surround the sea serpent he has vanquished. Woodcut by Gustave Doré


American tall tales

The tall tale is a fundamental element of American folk literature. The tall tale's origins are seen in the bragging contests that often occurred when the rough men of the American frontier gathered. The tales of legendary figures of the Old West, some listed below, owe much to the style of tall tales.

The bi-annual speech contests held by Toastmasters International public speaking clubs might include a Tall Tales contest. Each participating speaker is given three to five minutes to give an original short speech of a tall tale nature. The winner and runner-up proceed to the next level of competition. The contest does not proceed beyond any participating district in the organization to the International level.

The comic strip Non Sequitur sometimes features tall tales told by the character Captain Eddie; it is left up to the reader to decide if he is telling the truth, exaggerating a real event, or just telling a whopper.

Other subjects of American tall tales include:

Paul Bunyan's sidekick, Babe the blue ox, sculpted as a ten-meter tall roadside tourist attraction

(*Asterisk indicates legendary figures who are known to be based on actual historical individuals.)

Similar traditions in other cultures

The Columnar basalt that makes up the Giant's Causeway; in legend, a fine set of hexagonal stepping stones to Scotland, made by Finn mac Cumail

Similar storytelling traditions are present elsewhere.

The skvader, an example of a tall tale hunting story.

Australian tall tales

The Australian frontier similarly inspired the types of tall tales that are found in American folklore. The Australian versions typically centre around a mythical station called The Speewah.

The heroes of the Speewah include:

  • Big Bill - The dumbest man on the Speewah who made his living cutting up mining shafts and selling them for post holes
  • Crooked Mick - A champion shearer who had colossal strength and quick wit.
  • Crocodile Dundee - "Thats not a knife, now thats... thats a knife"

Another folk hero in Australian folklore is The Man from Snowy River - A hero (created by author Banjo Patterson) whose bravery, adaptability, and risk-taking could epitomise the new Australian spirit.

Canadian tall tales

The Canadian frontier has also inspired the types of tall tales that are found in American folklore. Big Joe Mufferaw was a giant of a lumberjack and woodsman from the Ottawa Valley in Canada.

Modern-day tall tales

On this Allman Brothers Band album cover, a giant peach dwarfs the flatbed truck carrying it; a tribute to tall tale postcards

Tall tales in visual media

Early 20th century postcards became a vehicle for tall tale telling in the US.[2][3] Creators of these cards, such as the prolific Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr.,[4] and William H. "Dad" Martin, usually employed trick photography, including forced perspective, while others painted their unlikely tableaus,[3] or used a combination of painting and photography in early examples of photo retouching.[5]. The common theme was gigantism: fishing for leviathans,[3][6] hunting for[3][7] or riding[8][9] oversized animals, and bringing in the impossibly huge sheaves.[3][10] An homage to the genre can be found on the cover of the Eat a Peach album.

See also


  1. ^ Cumbrian Liars
  2. ^ "Larger Than Life: Tall-Tale Postcards". Wisconsin Historical Society. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "Storytelling Through the Mail: Tall Tale Postcards in Michigan". Michigan History Online. 
  4. ^ "Wisconsin historical images, Keywords: "tall tale", Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr.". Wisconsin Historical Society. 
  5. ^ "Tall-tale Postcard: Mammoth Strawberries". Wisconsin Historical Society. 
  6. ^ "Wisconsin historical images, Keywords: "tall tale", "fishing"". Wisconsin Historical Society. 
  7. ^ "Wisconsin historical images, Keyword "hunting"". Wisconsin Historical Society. 
  8. ^ "Homeward Bound". 
  9. ^ "Man Riding Sheep (1916)". 
  10. ^ "Wisconsin historical images, Keyword "hunting"". Wisconsin Historical Society. 

Further reading

  • Brown, Carolyn. (1989). The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 0-87049-627-1.

External links

Tall tales are good to read. They are from many different cultures. Most of the time they are about someone who is out of place but then becomes the hero or heroine.

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