Banyan Tree, Tiger, Leviathan: To Tell the Truth

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by Debbie Vance

Parcels of fibs! Packets of moonshine! Tales so tall you couldn’t see the top of them! The three brothers were incredible storytellers.

So begins an old Indian folk tale–“To Tell the Truth”– in which three storytelling brothers come upon a princess in the road. They challenge her to a story contest: They would each tell a tale, and whoever indicated surprise or belief would lose. (The point was to tell a story that no one would believe to be true–a tall tale.) The stakes? Slavery. The three brothers, confident in their tale-telling, planned to dupe the princess into becoming their slave so they could own all of her wealth.

Tall Tale

They each tell a tall tale. The first tells of climbing to the top of the tallest Banyan tree, ten times taller than any other tree; the second tells of jumping into a tiger’s mouth, whole, and being spit out, thereby convincing the tiger his people were indigestible and, clearly, saving the whole village; the third, finally, tells of turning himself into a fish to fight the monster that had been eating all the little fish and starving the villagers–he kills the beast and frees the fish, saving his people from starvation. All this time, the princess has remained calm, docile, until it comes to her turn.

She tells a story of her three runaway slaves, whom she has been looking for, and whom she has found in these three men. A trap! If the brothers believe the story–and negate its tall-taleness–then they admit to being her slaves; but if they deny its truth, then they admit that she is a better storyteller and must become her slaves anyway.

The princess wins the contest but sets the brothers free:

“I will set you free on one condition. Go back to your village and tell people home truths as well. Tell them about themselves. Tell them hope and fear and bravery and love. Tell them their own stories!”

And so the story ends, with the command to tell the people their own stories, to give them “hope and fear and bravery and love” that they can believe in and cling to. I think this is something that we as writers should strive to do as well. Whether you write non-fiction, fiction, or poetry, imbue a bit of truth, a bit of honest hope and bravery into your work. Give your readers something to believe in.

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