ATU 852 "Lying Contest"

Hello, and welcome to the May 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 852 "Lying Contest." This month's discussion is all about lies and the liars who tell them, so let's begin with a folk tale featuring the Ash Lad, that underestimated but entirely too clever Norwegian character.

"Ash Lad, Who Got the Princess to Say He Was Lying"

There was once a king who had a daughter, and she told such lies that nothing could be worse. Then he decreed that anyone who could tell a big enough lie that the princess would say he was lying could have both her and half the kingdom. Many tried, for everyone wanted to have the princess and half the kingdom, but it didn’t go well for any of them.

There were also three brothers who wanted to try their luck. The two older brothers were the first to set off, but it went no better for them than for all the rest.

Then Ash Lad set off. He found the princess in the cowshed.

“Good day, and nice to see you again,” he lied.

“Good day,” she said, “nice to see you again too. I bet your cowshed isn’t as big as ours. When two herdsmen stand at either end and blow on their billy goat horns, they won’t be able to hear each other.”

“Oh, there you’re wrong,” said Ash Lad. “Ours is much bigger. When a milk cow starts at one end, she won’t give birth to her calf until she gets to the other side.”

“Is that right?” said the princess. “Well, I bet you don’t have an ox as big as ours. Take a look over there! If someone sits on each horn, they won’t be able to reach each other with a goalpost.”

“That’s nothing!” said Ash Lad. “We have an ox that’s so big that when someone sits on each horn and blows on a lur, they won’t be able to hear each other.”

“Is that right?” said the princess. “I bet you don’t get from your cows as much milk as we do from ours,” she said. “We use big basins for the milking. Then we bring the milk inside, pour it into big pans, and make big rounds of cheese.”

“Oh, we use big vats for the milking,” said Ash Lad. “Then we put the milk in carts and wheel them inside. We pour the milk into big washtubs and make cheeses as big as a house. Then we get a mare, pale as a moose, to stamp the cheese into big piles. One time the mare gave birth in the cheese, and after we’d eaten from that cheese for seven years, we found inside it a big horse, pale as a moose. I was once supposed to take the animal to the mill, and suddenly its back flew right off. But I knew just what to do. I picked up a spruce sapling and set it on the horse’s back. That’s the only back the animal ever had, for as long as we owned it. But the spruce grew. It got so big that I climbed up the tree to heaven. When I got there, I saw the Virgin Mary spinning ropes out of soup grains. All of a sudden the spruce blew away, and I couldn’t get back down. But the Virgin Mary lowered me down on one of the ropes, and I landed in a fox den. There sat my mother and your father, mending shoes. Suddenly my mother hit your father so hard that the scabs flew off him.”

“You’re lying!” said the princess. “My father has never in his life been scabby!”1


ATU 852 "Lying Contest" is a Realistic Tale under the sub-category "The Man Marries the Princess," and the ATU index summarizes it this way:

Lying Contest (previously The Hero Forces the Princess to Say, "That is a Lie"). A princess is offered in marriage to the man who can tell so big a lie that she (her father) will exclaim, "That is a lie" [H342.1]. A suitor tells impossible tales of his extraordinary great ox [X1237], of a tree that grows to the sky overnight [F54.2], of a river of honey [X1547.2], of his ascent and descent on a rope of chaff from the sky [X1757], of a great cabbage [X1424], stable [X1547.2, X1036.1], animals [X1201], mushroom [X1424], large man [X920], a man who cuts off his head and replaces it [X1726.2], a man who cuts ice with his own hands [X1858] or of a man who drinks water from his skull [X1739.2].

When finally the suitor states that her father served his father as a swineherd (when he threatens to report [falsely] her amorous conduct [K1271.1.]), the princess (king) is brought to say the required words and she has to marry the suitor.2

There are quite a few motifs mentioned in this tale type, so I won't cover them all. Instead, here's a list of the ones you'll find in the example tale:

  • F54.2 is listed as an other world journey in which a plant grows to the sky.
    • F54.2. Plant grows to sky. (Jack and the Beanstalk).3
  • H342.1 is a marriage test and specifically a suitor test.
    • H342.1. Suitor test: forcing princess to say, "That is a lie."4

The rest of the relevant motifs are humour of lies and exaggeration.

  • X1036.1 is a lie about a remarkable building.
    • X1036.1. Lie: the great stable: distance to stall.5
  • X1201 and X1237 are lies about mammals.
    • X1201. Lie: the great animal.6
    • X1237. Lie: remarkable ox or steer.7
  • X1757 is an absurd disregard for the nature of an object.
    • X1757. Rope of sand (chaff).8

I'll start by making a couple of important notes about this tale type and these motifs. First, while "Jack and the Beanstalk" has its own tale type, ATU 328A, the unusual beanstalk itself is a motif that appears in other tales as well. The example tale gives us a magical spruce tree instead, but both are plants that grow up into the sky. So the motif might be expressed in a number of different ways and occur in a number of different tales, but it's still "F54.2. Plant grows to sky." Second, the Ash Lad's lies about a stable, remarkable animals, and a rope made of soup grains are only a few of many that can be found in the ATU 852 tale type. So the rest of the lies are found in other tales, which themselves are variations on the same basic plot.

Now let's have a look at the Ash Lad himself, who appears in many Norwegian tales. In his review of Espen Ash Lad: Folk Tales from Norway, folklore scholar Jack Zipes writes:

Ash Lad, or Espen Askeladd, as he is called in Norwegian, is the youngest of three brothers and has a great deal in common with other maltreated tiny heroes of European folk- and fairy tales, such as Tom Thumb, Jack the Giant Killer, lazy Russian Ivan, the brave little tailor, and Pietro the fisherman. One might call him a male Cinderella. But he is also different from these other characters and especially from his female counterpart: Ash Lad is often pictured lying in ashes, lazy and useless. It does not appear that he is ambitious or has anything to prove. Yet beneath this veneer, as we come to suspect, there is a highly clever, fearless, and generous young man. This identity becomes apparent when he and his brothers, either impoverished peasants or king’s sons, are challenged to help their families and/or to succeed in life by undertaking a quest.9

What a compelling character model, don't you think? The youngest, smallest brother of three permits people to underestimate him until it counts. Then he's clever, fearless, generous, and always gets what he wants. Let's work with him a bit in this month's exercise, shall we?

Adaptation and Subversion

Before we drop the Ash Lad into this month's exercise, I'm going to backtrack a bit and draw your attention to a few similarities between the lying contest presented in the example story and the folklore genre of the tall tale. Longtime followers of Folklore & Fiction will remember my September 2019 discussion of tall tales, in which I provide the following checklist of attributes.

The tall tale is:

  • a fictional prose narrative told as if it were true; an entertaining lie.
  • best understood in the context of an oral performance but may also be written down.
  • a male expressive tradition in which the storyteller often begins by asserting his own trustworthiness.
  • rooted in comic humour, misdirection, and outlandishness; slippery, surreal, and absurd.
  • often told in a socially complex environment comprised of a storyteller, insider audience, and outsider audience.

The lying contest in the example story doesn't contain all of these attributes, but the Ash Lad and the princess do tell entertaining lies as if they are true. The contest itself is also an oral performance, and each of the two participants is both a performer and an audience of one. I wouldn't argue that what we have in the lying contest is a male expressive tradition in the way tall tale telling often is, but the lies themselves are indeed rooted in comic humour, misdirection, and outlandishness. Finally, the performance takes place in a socially complex environment between a peasant who wants to become a prince and a princess who will be given in marriage to any man who can get her to call him a liar. Again, it isn't the same sort of environment we often associate with tall tales, comprised of a storyteller, insider audience, and outsider audience. Still, I would argue that any deviation from truth-telling creates narrative and social complexity because it's harder to keep a story straight and convince a listener of your trustworthiness when you aren't telling the truth. So perhaps we can adapt this idea of narrative and social complexity to storytelling that contains lying contests, tall tales, or lies in general.

Now let's bring the Ash Lad back into the discussion. There's already something of a lie in his nature because he permits other people to underestimate him, and that requires a particular sort of confidence to carry out successfully. It also takes a great deal of confidence to lie as he does in the example tale, and we can almost hear a bit of swagger in his "“Oh, there you’re wrong,” and “That’s nothing!” pronouncements. But there are many other ways to express the confidence of our characters in storytelling besides dialogue. The Emotion Thesaurus provides two pages on the topic, and here's a short list from that excellent reference guide:

  • Approaching people with ease
  • Flirting
  • Initiating contact
  • Looking others directly in the eye
  • Openness when dealing with people
  • Smiling, a playful grin
  • Strong posture (shoulders back, chest out, chin high)
  • Telling jokes, adding to or steering a conversation
  • Using exaggerated movements to draw attention to oneself
  • Wearing clothes that are flashy or dramatic
  • Winking or giving someone an easy nod10

One last thing. From a storytelling perspective, we might craft the Ash Lad in a number of different ways. He might be a secret agent whose nondescript demeanour and dead-end job are a cover for cleverness and a capacity for violent conflict resolution. She might be a Victorian lady, the youngest sister of three, believed to be unintelligent until she solves a series of difficult riddles or weak until she fights off a horde of zombies. The key here is to write characters so confident in themselves that they aren't afraid to be underestimated until it's time to take charge of a situation, and then they do that with confidence as well.

Exercise: With all of the foregoing in mind, your exercise this month is to craft a confident but much-underestimated character and drop this person into a scene or a story about lies, a lying contest, or a tall tale. Bonus points for using any of the motifs mentioned in ATU 852 as a foundation for the lies your character tells.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for the Summer Solstice dispatch and podcast, which are devoted to folkloric elements in my own work. Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.


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Monthly Meme Archive

Here are the folklore-related memes I published to social media in April 2021.

  • 1. Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, “Ash Lad, Who Got the Princess to Say He Was Lying,” in The Complete and Original Norwegian Folktales of Asbjørnsen and Moe, trans. Tiina Nunnally (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019): Kindle.
  • 2. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 480.
  • 3. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Volume Three F-H (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): 11.
  • 4. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Volume Three F-H (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): 407.
  • 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): Electronic Edition.
  • 6. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): Electronic Edition.
  • 7. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): Electronic Edition.
  • 8. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): Electronic Edition.
  • 9. Jack Zipes, “Review of Espen Ash Lad: Folk Tales from Norway by Robert Gambles,” Marvels & Tales 30, no. 2 (2016): 361–362.
  • 10. Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman, ''The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression'' (Writers Helping Writers, 2012): 32.