What is it that separates the literary tall tale from straight-up fantasy? I think a lot of it is in the intention and presentation of the author. Tall tales are stories that are supposed to be ridiculous, yet the teller insists that they are entirely true. One of the earliest known examples of this genre is Lucian of Samosata’s True History, written in Greek in the second century.
It’s a purposely absurd travel narrative largely intended as a parody of Herodotus, who was known to mix fact with fiction. Not that we should really be too hard on the Father of History, as he mostly just wrote what he was told by the people he visited, rather than making up stuff on his own to make his accounts more interesting. It was also pretty heavily influenced by Homer’s Odyssey, which in some ways could be considered a tall tale in and of itself. After all, some of Odysseus’ adventures are related second-hand to the Phaeacians, leading some to suspect that he might have made them up, or at least exaggerated them somewhat. Herodotus, Homer, and Odysseus all show up in Lucian’s work when the narrator visits the land of the dead. The most notable part of True History, however, is probably the trip to the Moon, which has led to the whole being considered an early example of science fiction. Mind you, there isn’t really any science at work here, just imagination. The lunar people are all male, and have removable eyes, cabbage tails, and one toe on each foot. They sweat milk, eat frogs, and ride on giant three-headed vultures, fleas, and birds garnished with vegetables. During the course of the story, they go to war with the people of the Sun, who ride on giant winged ants, over the right to colonize Venus.
Upon returning to Earth, our heroes are swallowed by a giant whale. There are shades of Jonah here, but this whale is home to several tribes of people, and also contains a forest. After some adventures inside the sea monster, the protagonists escape by setting a fire, an idea Pinocchio would later take to heart.
Also of note is a visit to an island made of cheese, which is apparently a pun, as the Greek name for the city of Tyre also means “cheese.” I guess it would be like an English speaker calling a fictional country Grease. The idea of edible landscapes has become quite popular, especially in children’s stories, and I have to wonder if there was much use of it before Lucian. There is the myth about the Elysian Fields having rivers flowing with wine, a device that Lucian also uses.
Quite similar to Lucian’s tall tales in many ways are the adventures of Baron Munchausen, This famous figure was a real person, an eighteenth-century German nobleman named Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen. He journeyed abroad to fight in the Russo-Turkish War, and when he returned home, he was known to have recounted exaggerated versions of his adventures. Apparently these stories mostly pertained to hunting, but their popularity led to various storytellers attributing other fantastic adventures to him. An early English version of these adventures, written by Rudolph Raspe, was first published in 1785. This was within the real Baron’s lifetime, and he was known to have gotten annoyed at his reputation as an outrageous liar. I suppose he would have been even more irritated at the name of Münchausen’s Syndrome, which he certainly didn’t have. Anyway, I read an 1895 edition of the Rapse text, in which the Baron’s exploits become increasingly ridiculous. Raspe took some of these stories from other sources, including Lucian of Samosata. Munchausen visits the Moon and an island of cheese, both of which are described pretty much the same way as in True History, although the lunar people now have detachable heads as well as removable eyeballs.
In other tales recounted by Raspe, the Baron builds an enormous bridge from Africa to England, fights and eventually allies with Don Quixote (despite the fact that he dies at the end of his own story, written almost two centuries earlier), and personally constructs the Panama and Suez Canals.
Five years ago, I watched Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which includes several episodes from Raspe’s book, including the visit to the Moon.