Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Off to Myanmar this Friday thanks to Authors Abroad. I’ll be telling tales at the International School Yangon and at Dulwich College. I’ll kick off the tour with my own re-telling of the old Burmese story – The Tall Tales, based on the version below.

There once lived three brothers who were known throughout the land for the tall tales they told. They would travel from place to place telling their strange stories to whoever would listen. No one ever believed their tales and all who heard them would cry out with exclamations of disbelief.

One day while travelling very far from home the three brothers came upon a wealthy prince. The prince was dressed very elegantly and bedecked in jewels such as the three men had never seen in their lives. They thought how wonderful it would be to have such possessions so they devised a plan whereby they could use their storytelling ability to trick the prince out of his belongings.

They said to the prince: “Let’s tell each other stories of past adventures and if anyone should doubt the truth of what the other is saying then that person must become a slave to the others.” Now the brothers had no use for a slave but if they could make the prince their slave then they could take his clothes because they would then belong to them.

The prince agreed to their plan. The brothers were sure they would win because no one had ever heard their stories without uttering cries of disbelief. And so they found a passer-by and asked him to act as judge in the matter. All sat down under the shade of a tree and the storytelling began.

The first brother stood up to tell his tale. With a smile on his face he began to speak:

“When I was a young boy I thought it would be fun to hide from my brothers so I climbed the tallest tree in our village and remained there all day while my brothers searched high and low for me. When night fell my brothers gave up the search and returned home. It was then that I realized that I was unable to climb down the tree. But I knew I could get down with the help of a rope, so I went to the nearest cottage and borrowed a rope and was then able to climb down the tree and return home.”

When the prince heard this ridiculous story he did not make a comment but merely stood and waited for the next story to begin. The three brothers were quite surprised but were sure that the second story would not be believed by the prince. And so the second brother began his tale:

“That day when my brother hid from us I was searching for him in the forest. I saw something run into the bushes and thinking it was my brother I ran in after it. When I got into the bushes I saw that it was not my brother but a huge hungry tiger. He opened his mouth to devour me and I jumped inside and crawled into his belly before he could chew me up. When inside I started jumping up and down and making loud, fierce noises. The beast did not know what was happening and became so frightened that he spit me out with such force that I traveled several hundred feet through the air and landed back in the middle of our village. And so though I was but a young lad I saved our whole village from the fearful tiger, because never again did the beast come near our village.”

After this story the prince once again made no comment. He merely asked that the third story begin. The three brothers were quite upset by this and as the last brother began his tale he had quite a frown upon his face. But he was still quite determined to make up a story so absurd that the prince could not this time help but doubt its truthfulness. And so he began his tale:

“One day as I was walking along the banks of the river I saw that all the fishermen seemed quite unhappy. I inquired as to why they seemed so sad. They therefore informed me that they had not caught one fish in a week and their families were going hungry as a result. I told them that I would try and help them. So I dove into the water and was immediately transformed into a fish. I swam around until I saw the source of the problem. A giant fish had eaten all the smaller fish and was himself avoiding the fishermen’s nets. When this giant saw me he came toward me and was about to devour me, but I changed back to human form and slashed the fish open with my sword. The fish inside his belly were then able to escape. Many swam right into the waiting nets. When I returned to shore many of the fish were so thankful that I had saved them that they returned with me. When the fishermen saw all these fish jumping onto shore after me they were indeed pleased and rewarded me abundantly.”

When this story was finished the prince did not doubt a word of it. The three brothers were quite upset, but at least they knew that they would not doubt the words of the prince. And so the prince began his tale:

“I am a prince of great wealth and property. I am on the road in search of three slaves who have escaped from me. I have searched high and low for them as they were very valuable property. I was about to give up the search when I met you three fellows. But now my search is ended because I have found my missing slaves, because you gentlemen are they.”

When the brothers heard these words they were shocked. If they agreed to the prince’s story then they were admitting that they were his slaves, but if they doubted what he said then they lost the bet and became his slaves anyway. The brothers were so upset by the cleverness of the prince that they said not a word. The passer-by who was judging the contest nevertheless declared that the prince had won the wager.

The prince did not make slaves of these men but instead allowed them to return to their village with the promise that they would never tell tall tales again. And the three brothers were thereafter known throughout the land for their honesty and truthfulness.

Favorite Folktales From Around The World edited by Jane Yolen. Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library.
The Tall Tales: I.K. Junne, Floating Clouds, Floating Dreams: Favorite Asian Folktales
( Garden City, N..Y.: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 3-5.

Tall Tales in Myanmar