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A tall tale is a story about a larger-than-life character, either fictional or based on a real person who has exaggerated adventures and performs exaggerated feats of daring, strength, courage, and/or intelligence. It is typical of the tall tale that everything in it is the subject of hyperbole, and in this characteristic, it bears relation to the “fish story” or “whopper,” in which a fisherman’s exploits are exaggerated for dramatic or humorous effect.
A tall tale is a kind of folk tale – a story that generally has no single author, but is passed around orally and embellished by many tellers over time. By now, some of these stories have been collected and published, and some authors have written “original” Paul Bunyan stories, for example, but the origins of this type of story — who made it up or told it first — are not usually very important. Other cultures have similar traditions to the North American tall tale, some focusing on a particular strong, legendary hero, and some sharing the characteristic of having the hero’s adventures revolve around a particular profession, but the tall tale genre is most closely associated with the United States and, particularly for logging tales, Canada.
Tall tales also are similar to fish stories in that many of them were told about a certain occupation among practitioners of that occupation. For example, railroaders have stories about the legendary, steel-driving man John Henry; lumberjacks tell of lumberman Paul Bunyan, and in Canada, of Ti-Jean, the 10-year-old French-Canadian lumberjack; cowhands recount the adventures of cowboy Pecos Bill; and trailblazers on the frontier tell of frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed. These are only a few of the North American tall tale heroes.
There are a number of elements that are typically subject to exaggeration in a tall tale. For one thing, the heroes are generally subject to an incredible rate of development at an early age, doing phenomenal things while still in their youth. John Henry, so they say, talked as soon as he was born. Paul Bunyan, who is credited with creating a number of the notable natural features of North America – Puget Sound, the lakes of Minnesota, and the Grand Canyon, to name a few – was already altering the landscape as an infant by kicking up his toes and knocking down a sizable amount of timber. Ti-Jean walks into a winter logging camp at age 10 and bests the men there in all kinds of contests.
The hero of a tall tale may also:
- eat massive amounts of food, like John Henry
- have companions as impressive as themselves, like Paul Bunyan’s “pet,” Babe, the Blue Ox
- be reckoned as responsible for fundamental and important inventions within their profession, often as novices, such as Pecos Bill’s invention of the lariat and spurs, or Paul Bunyan’s invention of the two-man saw
- win incredible contests in which the odds are stacked against them, as in the story of John Henry and the machine.