- For the film see Tall Tale (film)
A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual. Some stories such as these are exaggerations of actual events, for example 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 set in a familiar setting, such as the European countryside, the American frontier, the Canadian Northwest, or the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Tall tales are often told in a way that makes the narrator seem to have been a part of the story. They are usually humorous or good-natured. The line between legends and tall tales is distinguished primarily by age; many legends exaggerate the exploits of their heroes, but in tall tales the exaggeration looms large, to the extent of becoming the whole of the story.
American tall tale
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 semi-annual speech contests held by Toastmasters International public speaking clubs may include a Tall Tales contest. Each and every participating speaker is given three to five minutes to give a short speech of a tall tale nature, and is then judged according to several factors. 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.
§ indicates legendary figures who are known to be based on actual historical individuals.
‡ indicates figures who are actual living individuals.
Subjects of American tall tales include:
- Johnny Appleseed§ – A friendly folk hero who traveled the West planting apple trees because he felt his guardian angel told him to
- Tony Beaver – A West Virginia lumberjack and cousin of Paul Bunyan
- Pecos Bill – legendary cowboy who "tamed the wild west"
- Jim Bowie§ – A Kentuckian frontiersman, Texas Ranger, and land speculator who fought for the Texian cause in the Battle of the Alamo. He is known for the Bowie knife which he used to disembowel his opponent.
- Cordwood Pete – Younger brother to lumberjack Paul Bunyan
- Daniel Boone§ – Blazed a trail across Cumberland Gap to found the first English-speaking colonies west of the Appalachian Mountains
- Paul Bunyan – huge lumberjack who eats 50 pancakes in one minute
- Davy Crockett§ – A pioneer and U.S. Congressman from Tennessee who later died at the Battle of the Alamo
- Febold Feboldson – A Nebraska farmer who could fight a drought
- Mike Fink§ – The toughest boatman on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and a rival of Davy Crockett. Also known as the King of the Mississippi River Keelboatmen
- John Henry§ – A mighty steel-driving African American
- Calamity Jane§ – A tough Wild West woman
- Casey Jones§ – A brave and gritty railroad engineer
- Johnny Kaw, a fictional Kansan whose mythological status itself was in one sense a figment, in that it was created recently, in 1955. Adherents of this assessment deem such stories fakelore
- Nat Love§, also known as "Deadwood Dick", was born a slave in Tennessee in 1854. Tales of his adventures after emancipation, as a cowboy and as a Pullman porter, gained such fantastical elements as to be considered tall tales
- Joe Magarac – A Pittsburgh steelworker made of steel
- Chuck Norris‡ – A famous Karate champion, actor, and entrepreneur capable of impossible, superhuman feats
- Molly Pitcher§ – A heroine of the American Revolutionary War
- Alfred Bulltop Stormalong – An immense sailor whose ship was so big it scraped the moon
- Aylett C. "Strap" Buckner§ – An Indian fighter of colonial Texas
Similar traditions in other cultures
Similar storytelling traditions are present elsewhere. For instance:
- The many farfetched adventures of Baron Munchausen, some of which may have had a folklore basis.
- The Cumbrian Liars, a United Kingdom association who follow in the seven-league footsteps of Will Ritson.
- A brown bear coating himself in baking soda to be acceptable to humans as a polar bear, a young boy selling frozen words, and a woman whose voice cuts through a giant tree to release oranges that light the Polar night are all tales told by a Pomor elder in the Soviet animation film Laughter and Grief by the White Sea.
- The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel by the French writer Rabelais told the tale of two giants; father and son.
- Legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill also known by many other names including Finn MacCool, have it that he built the Giant's Causeway as stepping-stones to Scotland, so as not to get his feet wet; and that he also once scooped up part of Ireland to fling it at a rival, but it missed and landed in the Irish Sea — the clump became the Isle of Man and the pebble became Rockall, the void became Lough Neagh.
- Toell the Great was one of the great tall tales of Estonia.
- Juho Nätti (1890–1964), known as Nätti-Jussi, was a Finnish lumberjack known for telling tall tales, and his stories have also circulated as folk tales and been collected in books.
Australian tall tales
The Australian frontier (known as the bush or the outback) similarly inspired the types of tall tales that are found in American folklore. The Australian versions typically concern 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.
- Rodney Ansell
Another folk hero in Australian folklore is Charlie McKeahnie, The Man from Snowy River – A hero (created by author Banjo Paterson) 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.
- French Canadian tales of Big Joe Mufferaw, a giant of a lumberjack and woodsman from the Ottawa Valley.
- Johnny Chinook was a Canadian cowboy and rancher Métis of the Canadian West's Alberta.
- Ti-Jean, a giant 10-year-old French-Canadian lumberjack boy.
- Robert Service's story of Sam McGee.
Modern-day tall tales
Tall tales in visual media
Early 20th century postcards became a vehicle for tall tale telling in the US. Creators of these cards, such as the prolific Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr., and William H. "Dad" Martin, usually employed trick photography, including forced perspective, while others painted their unlikely tableaus, or used a combination of painting and photography in early examples of photo retouching. The common theme was gigantism: fishing for leviathans, hunting for or riding oversized animals, and bringing in the impossibly huge sheaves. An homage to the genre can be found on the cover of the Eat a Peach album.
- Big Fish – Tim Burton movie relating the story of a dying man to his son exaggerating the details of his life
- Chuck Norris facts – Tall tales about Chuck Norris.
- Bill Brasky
- Fairy tale
- Urban legend
- "Buckner, Aylett C.". Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved August 23, 2011.
- Cumbrian Liars
- "Larger Than Life: Tall-Tale Postcards". Wisconsin Historical Society.
- "Storytelling Through the Mail: Tall Tale Postcards in Michigan". Michigan History Online.
- "Wisconsin historical images, Keywords: "tall tale", Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr.". Wisconsin Historical Society.
- "Tall-tale Postcard: Mammoth Strawberries". Wisconsin Historical Society.
- "Wisconsin historical images, Keywords: "tall tale", "fishing"". Wisconsin Historical Society.
- "Wisconsin historical images, Keyword "hunting"". Wisconsin Historical Society.
- "Homeward Bound".
- "Man Riding Sheep (1916)".
- "Wisconsin historical images, Keyword "hunting"". Wisconsin Historical Society.
- Brown, Carolyn. (1989). The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 0-87049-627-1.