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Myth / Paul Bunyan

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Hey Paul! (Hey Paul!)
Paul Bunyan! (Paul Bunyan!)
He's sixty-three axe handles high
With his feet on the ground
And his head in the sky
Hey Paul! (Hey Paul!)
Paul Bunyan! (Paul Bunyan! Paul Bunyan!)
— Theme from Disney's Paul Bunyan, performed by The Mellomen

A figure of American folklore. Depending on who you ask, he might be seven feet tall with a stride of seven feet, or he might be so gigantic his beard has its own ecosystem.

A number of New England states claim to be the place of his birth (with Maine being the favored candidate), as do a few Canadian provinces. There's some room for compromise here; it's entirely possible that, even at the moment of his birth, he was big enough to need several states worth of land to stretch out in. His massive size also extended to his tools of the trade—legend has it that the head of his axe was made from a whole locomotive, and a single swing could fell entire forests at a time.

Some will tell you he was a great inventor and scholar, coming up with telephones, motorcycles, and other contraptions on the fly. Others will tell you he was completely illiterate and ordered his supplies by drawing pictures of what he wanted.

Folks in the Great Lakes area will tell you how he was a mighty lumberjack, who logged Michigan into the shape of a mitten because he had lost his own mitten in the snow, made Lake Superior cold by keeping his icebox at the bottom, and, after getting lost in a blizzard, his footprints filled up with water and became Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.

Nebraskans and Kansasites will tell you he's the reason they're covered by the Great Plains. First he cut down all their trees, then he flipped the states upside down, so all their hills were buried and nothing but flat land was left on top.

Californians will tell you their state's where he really hit his logging stride, at least as far as quality of wood is concerned, and on his way there created the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe on the ground for a bit.

Get down into Texas and Oklahoma, though, and they'll tell you lumberjacking was just his side venture; his real profession was drilling for oil, and that he built derricks so tall they had to be hinged at the top so they could let the sun and moon go by.

'Round Seattle, they'll tell you he was the one who dug out Puget Sound, and that he used all the dirt he dug up to make Mount Baker.

And get up into Alaska, and folks will tell you he's still there now, living out his retirement in the last wilderness America's got left. Even then, he still play-fights with his loyal blue ox Babe, and their gallivanting causes what the folk further south call the "Northern Lights".

His name's Paul Bunyan, and stories about him have gotten a little exaggerated.

He got his start as stories told among lumberjacks to amuse themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether there was ever an actual Paul Bunyan the stories are based on, and what similarity, if any, the surviving stories of him bear to the original logging camp yarns is a subject of much debate among folklorists.

The oldest surviving mention of him in print is an article James MacGillivray wrote for the Oscoda, Michigan newspaper in 1906, that related several anecdotes about Paul Bunyan and his logging crew. It reappeared in revised form in the Detroit News four years later under the title "The Round River Drive". The Detroit News story was redone in prose form for the American Lumberman in 1914. But Paul's big break didn't come until two years later, when he got into advertising!

Starting in 1916, ad man W.B. Laughead wrote some pamphlets for the Red River Lumber Company that used stories of Paul Bunyan to try and sell their product; these pamphlets are collectively known as The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan. Laughead is credited with creating most of the commonly known Bunyan lore, including Babe the Blue Ox and the idea that Paul Bunyan was a giant.

As it so happened, while they weren't much good at improving lumber sales, these pamphlets proved immensely popular for their entertainment value. And, since advertisements are meant to be distributed as widely as possible, free of charge, the Red River Lumber Company had never bothered to copyright Laughead's stories. This combination led to everyone and their grandmother putting out new Paul Bunyan stories, cribbing plenty of concepts and characters from Laughead's pamphlets. New logging camp characters were added, the site of Paul's operations moved from state to state, his size ranged from titanic to merely brobdingnagian, and other professions requiring an equal mix of brute force and quickwitted ingenuity were attributed to him.

With so many contradictory facets to the character, here are the basics you need to know:

Paul Bunyan has a beard, carries an ax, and is big. He's got Babe the Blue Ox as a pet, who is also big, usually said to measure "forty-seven ax-handles and a plug of tobacco between the eyes," but whether those are regular ax-handles or Paul Bunyan sized ax-handles is unclear. In fact his axe is so big, it made the Grand Canyon. Kinda hard to cut trees with that. Paul also runs a logging operation that goes wherever there are trees to cut, with Babe pulling their bunkhouses from one forest to the next. Crew members include the Seven Axmen, Johnny Inkslinger the accountant, Joe the cook, and Ole the blacksmith.

But, no matter who he's got working for him, or where they go, mother nature's always looking to screw them over. The weather's never anything but blistering heat or sub-absolute zero cold, with occasional flood or fog to liven things up. Trees can be so large men can spend most of their lives chopping at one before seeing it fall. Wildlife ranges from the obnoxious splinter cats and gumberoos to the deadly agropelters and snow wassets. And you never know when something utterly bizarre like a Winter of Blue Snow or a cornstalk the size of Jupiter is going to pop up.

Paul and his lumberjacks always tackle these problems with varying measures of brute force (when he wants to get back some logs he sent down the Mississippi, he just has Babe drink from the river until it starts flowing backwards), genuine cleverness (greasing a giant griddle by tying hams to people's feet and having them skate on it), to the just plain ridiculous (when they're plagued by torrential rain, Paul finds where a solid pillar of water is coming down and swims up it; the rain stops, and he comes back down proclaiming, "I turned the damn thing off").

The important part is that the characters, the problems they face, and the solutions they come up with must all be exaggerated to the point where Willing Suspension of Disbelief doesn't simply break, it shatters so hard you can't help but laugh.

Tropes associated with Paul Bunyan:

  • Amazing Technicolor Wildlife: Babe is a blue ox.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: Paul was presumably active sometime in the 1800s, though it's never clear which decade(s). Disney had him fight in the American Revolution.
  • Big Eater: All of his loggers, but especially Paul himself, and especially Babe. To keep everyone fed, they started making pancakes so big they needed dynamite to flip 'em over. Most of the stories say that they were cooked on a griddle so large it had to be greased by several men skating on it with shoes made out of bacon.
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: One story has Paul capture a Whirling Whimpus, an ape with large arms and short legs that attacks its prey by spinning in circles like the Tasmanian Devil.
  • Camp Cook: Goes by a number of different names, but Paul's always got one or two of these hanging around.
  • Canon Immigrant: The camp blacksmith Swedish Ole was originally unrelated, but later became one of Bunyan's more notable employees. A running joke is that while Ole is big enough to pick up horses, he's short compared to Paul.
  • Cassandra Did It: One tall tale has Paul running into a pair of boots that elicits this reaction from the other lumberjacks, though Paul realizes their true nature.
  • Characterization Marches On: The original logger's tales often portrayed him as an unscrupulous trickster, often taking advantage of his fellow lumberjacks. W.B. Laughed made him a friendly (and marketable) boss who is beloved by his employees.
  • Cool Versus Awesome: One story had Paul get into a misunderstanding with fellow Tall Tale Pecos Bill, resulting in a battle royal until they realized they could work together.
  • Delivery Stork: According to some of the tales, Paul required five of these.
  • Down on the Farm: Though he was born in Maine, Paul Bunyan is best associated with the Great Lakes region and the Dakotas.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: In the earliest known stories he isn't a giant and Babe and other fantastic elements are absent. Instead much more attention was paid to authentic details of the logging industry.
  • Evil Counterpart: In the Rankin-Bass version, there is the tyrannical and cheating Panhandle Pete.
  • Fearsome Critters of American Folklore: Paul and his camp often run across these.
  • Flyover Country: Although the stories take place before air travel.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Frequently portrayed as such.
  • Happily Adopted: In the Disney and Rankin-Bass adaptation. In the former, he was adopted and raised by the population of a small logging town in Maine where his cradle washed up, and in the latter, by two lumberjacks named "Stumps" Watson and "Crosscutt" Kelly, who found his crib floating down a river.
  • Horse of a Different Color: Babe is occasionally portrayed as such.
  • Hollywood New England: His birth place is almost always Maine and his childhood stories are set here. Paul epitomizes the rugged image Maine is known for in contrast to the rest of New England.
  • "Just So" Story: He is the man featured in a lot of these.
  • Man Versus Machine: In the Disney version, Paul and Babe challenged Joe Muffaw and his steam saw and steam engine to see who can cut and haul more trees. Joe won by one quarter of an inch, effectively proving that Paul and Babe will soon be outdated. Depressed, Paul and Babe self exiled themselves to Alaska.
  • Memetic Badass: Invoked. While hardly the first, he's one of the first characters to be entirely defined by this trope.
  • Mighty Lumberjack: The Ur-Example, having originated in Canada in the early 19th century.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Babe the Blue Ox is the loyal companion of Paul Bunyan.
  • Parental Abandonment: In the Rankin-Bass version, Bunyan was abandoned by his parents who didnt know how to handle his giant growth, and set him afloat on a stream with a letter explaining why they had left him.
  • Serial Escalation: Pretty much a requisite for any tall tale character, where the goal is usually to top whatever outrageous claims the last person to tell the story made.
  • Small Parent, Huge Child: Even as a baby Paul was said to not only dwarf his parents but everyone around him. They had to feed the baby using a hose and a water tower as a bottle.
  • Upgrade vs. Prototype Fight: Paul Bunyan the giant lumberjack once faced off against a giant chainsaw. He lost and left into the wilderness. Or he won but left because he realized he would only get older and slower, while the chainsaw would only become better with time and upgrading, depending on the story.
  • Walk the Earth: One collection says Paul spend the rest of his life doing this after Babe died.
  • Weird West: Many of the stories take place here
  • Your Size May Vary: As noted above, Paul's size can vary from "pretty tall" to "the size of a mountain", depending on the story.