Tall tale

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For the 1995 film, see Tall Tale (film).
Rabelais' giant, Pantagruel, sleeps after his encounter; curious onlookers surround the sea serpent he has vanquished. Woodcut by Gustave Doré

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, and 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[edit]

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.


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

Subjects of American tall tales include legendary figures:

Other stories are told about exaggerated versions of actual historical individuals:

Similar traditions in other cultures[edit]

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. For instance:

The skvader, an example of a tall tale hunting story.
  • 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[edit]

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[edit]

The Canadian frontier has also inspired the types of tall tales that are found in American folklore.

Modern-day tall tales[edit]

Tall tales in visual media[edit]

Early 20th century postcards became a vehicle for tall tale telling in the US.[3][4] Creators of these cards, such as the prolific Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr.,[5] and William H. "Dad" Martin, usually employed trick photography, including forced perspective, while others painted their unlikely tableaus,[4] or used a combination of painting and photography in early examples of photo retouching.[6] The common theme was gigantism: fishing for leviathans,[4][7] hunting for[4][8] or riding[9][10] oversized animals, and bringing in the impossibly huge sheaves.[4][11] An homage to the genre can be found on the cover of the Eat a Peach album.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]