Some tall tales are based on true events or on events that could happen in real life, while others are largely composed of fictional people, places, circumstances, and actions. Some tall tales are formal and include standard, repeated elements. While others change every time, they’re told and may be adjusted to fit a particular occasion.
Explore Tall Tale
Tall Tale Definition
A tall tale is an exaggerated story. These stories may be based on real events or be entirely fictional. Often, the narrator is part of the story and relates it in order to make something they accomplished or an issue they faced seem more difficult or impressive than it was. These stories are generally good-natured, entertaining, and common to American folklore. Bragging is also an integral part of the storytelling tradition.
Tall Tale Heros
Some of the best-known tall tales feature the same characters. These include but are not limited to:
- Johnny Appleseed
- Davy Crocket
- Daniel Boone
- Jim Bowie
- Sam Patch
- Casey Jones
These real-life characters are primarily known for anecdotes and tall tales that have been expanded and elaborated on throughout history. Other fictional heroes readers might find in tall tales include:
- Tony Beaver
- Paul Bunyan
- Joe Magarac
- Alfred Bellhop Stormalong
All of these heroes and others engage in daring feats, defeat their enemies in outrageous ways and are often accompanied by interesting sidekicks, like Paul Bunyan’s blue ox—Babe.
Examples of Tall Tales
John Henry Vs the Might Steam Drill
This classic tall tale features John Henry, an American folk hero, who races a steam-powered rock drilling machine. He won the competition but, according to legend, died from stress. Hyperbolic statements fill the lines of this well-known story, including the assertion that he was born with a hammer in his hand. Here are a few lines from one version of the famous tale:
The whistle blew, and the contest began. John Henry groaned as he swung his hammer into the rock. He heard the machine groan, too. “A man is better than a machine,” he said under his breath. John Henry swung his hammer as quick as lightning. He put all his strength into breaking through the rock.
The Story of Johnny Appleseed
Johnny Appleseed is a famous character from American folklore who was based on a real-life man named John Chapman. Born in 1774 in Massachusetts, Appleseed wanted to grow so many apples that no one would ever be hungry again.
He traveled around the country, trading appleseeds for clothes and was described as “funny looking.” As he travelled, he planted orchards all over the country and, as less-commonly told, spreading the religion of the Church of New Jerusalem. He preferred to sleep outside and passed away in march 1845 at the age of seventy-one. Here is an excerpt from Jonny Appleseed: The man, The Myth, And the American Story by Howard Means:
Barefoot, dressed in coarse pantaloons and a coffee sack with holes cut out for his head and arms, Chapman had walked fifteen miles that day through mixed snow and rain to repair a bramble fence that protected one of his orchards.
The Tale of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox
Paul Bunyan is one of the best-known characters from American tall tales and folklore. The stories are believed to have originated from North American loggers who believed (or suggested that they did) the man really lived and pioneered their trade across the United States. Stories about Bunyan often include superhuman strength and the feats of power demonstrated by his sidekick, Babe, a blue ox.
Stories describe Bunyan as seven feet tall and with a comparable stride. He’s credited, in these fictional stories, for digging the hole that now holds Lake Superior and creating the Mississippi River after Babe knocked over a water tank.
Authors write tall tales in order to emphasize a particular event or create an interesting and entertaining story. Tall tales, like fables and other elements of folklore, are often shared person to person through oral storytelling.
Tall tales have different meanings, depending on the story and the person’s intentions. Some stories might be told in order to emphasize a single person or a group’s strength, while others might be told to do the exact opposite.
The stories revolving around Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox are some of the best examples of tall tales. For instance, one story describes Bunyan as seven feet tall and with enough strength to dig the hole in which Lake Superior sits today.
Five elements of a tall tale are: protagonists and antagonists (or heroes and villains), a rising action, a conflict or problem the hero has to resolve, the climax (where all the story elements converge or the most exciting part of the story), and a resolution.
Most tall tales are fake. But, many others are based on reality. They often take real-life characters and imbue them with incredible characteristics and skills. For example, after someone passes away, their accomplishments might be described in hyperbolic detail, turning fact into fiction.
Related Literary Terms
- Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
- Apologue: a short story, sometimes a fable, that shares a moral lesson. For example, kindness is more important than power, or love triumphs over hate.
- Fable: a short and concise story that provides the reader with a moral lesson at the end.
- Folklore: refers to stories that people tell. These include folk stores, fairy tales, urban legends, and more.
- Folksong: a piece of music that was composed within the parameters of folk music. These songs are usually about a particular group of people, an event, or an experience.