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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif X1021-X1049

Remarkable man's extraordinary possessions.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

1. Jests and Anecdotes

P. Lies and Exaggerations

The collecting of folktales from the older population centers in the United States, particularly those belonging primarily to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, has hardly begun, and much that has appeared has come out within the past five years. From what we have learned of such collections, it seems clear that only a limited group of old tales have kept on being told. Short anecdotes, like the devil in the cemetery, and animal tales of the Uncle Remus type appear everywhere. But perhaps most popular of all are what is known to American story-tellers as tall tales. Sometimes these outrageous exaggerations are original, but often they correspond rather faithfully to a well-known European form. Frequently heard on both sides of the Atlantic is the story of the man who rescues himself from a barrel by grabbing hold of a wolf's tail and being drawn out of danger (X911; Type 1875). Also popular in America as well as many parts of Europe are absurd accounts of wonderful luck in hunting (X921; Types 1890-1909). One of the best known of them tells of all the game killed by an accidental discharge of a gun. The gun, for example, kills a bird which falls on a loose limb of a tree, which falls on a bear, etc., etc. The sequence may be varied almost indefinitely. The feet of rabbits or wild ducks may freeze fast in the ice at night, or the hunter may go wading and catch his boots full of fish. [327]

The boy who was shot out of a cannon (X913; Type 1880) does not seem to be known outside of the Baltic area, but in contrast, the very popular Munchausen story of the man who falls and is buried in the earth and then goes for a spade to dig himself out (X917; Type 1882) seems to be [p. 215] quite unknown in those countries. The latter tale has been picked up over most parts of Europe and forms a part of nearly every American collection itself and then only imperfectly to the processes of folktale tradition.

Tales of lying or mere foolery are, of course, very widespread and may have the most diverse origins and histories. The nonsensical repartee in which one liar announces that the sea has burned up and the other consoles him with "Many fried fish" (X925; Type 1920A) is well known in the Baltic and in certain parts of eastern Europe and appears in at least five collections from India, but except for a single Walloon notice, does not seem to be known in western Europe or America.

A piece of nonsense known at least from the time of Straparola, and popularized by later French and Italian jestbooks, consists merely in a tale in which all kinds of animals and things are designated by senseless names (X951; Type 1940). [328] The hen is chuckie chuckie, the duck wheetie wheetie, the dog bouffie bouffie, and the like. The tale becomes, in effect, a game in identification. It is told over the most of Europe, but has not been reported outside. The fact that five English versions are known would make it seem likely that this tale might be found sometime in America, but it has apparently not been reported.

In the United States and Canada during the last fifty years one of the most interesting phenomena in the life of the backwoods and frontier, particularly among lumbermen, has been the growth of a whole cycle of tales about Paul Bunyan. The essential point about every anecdote in the cycle is the gigantic size, not only of Paul himself, but of all his animals and possessions. In spite of innovations introduced by story-tellers with original ideas and even in spite of contests held for good Paul Bunyan tales, the central core of incidents in the cycle seems to be fairly well established, and to be preserved with considerable stability. The exact history of the Paul Bunyan tradition is not clear, and we do not know to what extent analogous tales from Europe have exercised a real influence in building up this rather unified series of exaggerations. [329] But whether only chance analogues or the original of some of the Paul Bunyan incidents, there exist in Europe, in Scandinavia and Finland, a considerable series of stories of gigantic animals, buildings, and objects. Many of these are also found in the older jestbooks. There are plentiful parallels to Paul Bunyan's big ox, though probably none to the measurement between the tips of the horns by means of so and so many axe-handles plus one plug of tobacco. The giant kitchen can easily be paralleled, but not the waiters on roller skates. On the other hand, in spite of its long literary history as a medieval Latin poem [p. 216] and as an anecdote in jestbooks both Oriental and. European, the tale of the great cabbage seems not to have become a part of the Paul Bunyan tradition. In this story one man elaborates to the best of his ability the details of the cabbage's size. His companion counters with a similar outrageous story of a huge kettle. The other asks him what use can be made of such a kettle. "Why, to put the cabbage in, of course." This anecdote has not remained merely literary, but has become a part of the repertory of story-tellers all over Europe. It has also been found in India, in Indo-China, and in the British tradition of Virginia.

That these tales of lies and exaggerations should have had great popularity in the rapid opening up of the American continent, with its incredible events of everyday life, is no cause for wonder. But it is surprising that, in spite of a continuous flow of immigrants, so many other interesting European anecdotes should have failed to find a place on American soil. It is possible that as further collecting goes on we shall find that many more of the anecdotes we have been noticing are here and have only been waiting for the collector.

However that may be, the conclusion of this survey of the better-known anecdotes current in the countries from Ireland to India does suggest that certain kinds of incidents have easily traveled across the ocean and certain kinds rarely or never. As far as Europe and Asia themselves are concerned, we see that a very large number of stories, otherwise known only through jestbooks and the like, have become a part of the store of oral anecdotes in certain countries. Particularly rich in this respect are Finland and the other Baltic states. It may well be that the relative scarcity of such anecdotes in other parts of the area is due to inadequate collection. But one gets the very definite impression, in surveying a large number of such anecdotes, that for most countries they belong to a semi-literary tradition, that they are likely to be preserved in cheap jestbooks even today, and that one is more likely to have learned his story by reading it than by hearing it.

These individual anecdotes are certainly looked upon by the story-teller in a different light from the wonder tale or, indeed, from any other complex folk story. The skillful folktale teller in such a place as Ireland or Russia is likely to be scornful of such trifles. The complexity of plot, the machinery of wonder and supernaturalism, the far-off world of the unreal—all of these seem to give value to a tale and to assist its faithful preservation over centuries of telling, even in far-separated lands. But the simple anecdote refuses to take on very definite form and texture. It has its main point with which every teller may exercise his skill. There is no special virtue attached to faithfulness of text or the maintenance of an old tradition. Of whatever ultimate origin, the anecdote is likely to be handed on from century to century and from country to country between the covers of books or [p. 217] pamphlets, and, with rare exceptions, as apparently in Finland, submits itself and then only imperfectly to the processes of folktale tradition.

[327] For a discussion of the American versions of these tall tales, see the notes by Herbert Halpert in Richard Chase's The Jack Tales, pp. I98f.

[328] See also: Basset, Contes berbères, p. 350, No. 209i; Bolte, Zeitschrift fur Volkskunde, XXVI. 8, 370; Béaloideas, II, 94, 227, III 239; Jackson, Folklore, XLVII, 292 (1).

[329] For a good bibliography of the Paul Bunyan cycle, see Gladys J. Haney, "Paul Bunyan Twenty-Five Years After," Journal of American Folklore, LV (1942), 155ff. For these gigantic animals and objects, see X1021-X1049; Type 1960 and subdivisions. See p. 250, below.


1875, 1880, 1882, 1890-1909, 1920A, 1940, 1960


X911, X913, X917, X921, X925, X951, X1021-X1049