Mossback's Northwest: Is Paul Bunyan folklore or fakelore?

The giant logger and his blue ox Babe are the stuff of American folktales. But really, who — or what — was Paul Bunyan?

The Paul Bunyan legend may have originated with a mythic Canadian lumberjack named Bon Jean, famous for his red knit wool cap. (photo by Resti Bagcal, Crosscut)

Few figures loom as large in Northwest lore as Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox named Babe.

There are children’s books, campfire stories, cartoons, murals, giant Paul Bunyan statues, festivals, poems — there is even a Paul Bunyan opera!

Some people say he’s a legend, others that he’s a fake.

Who was Paul Bunyan? Is he folklore or “fakelore”? Or something else entirely?

For several generations of Northwesterners, Paul Bunyan was a fixture, a giant ax-wielding logger about whom tall tales were told as he turned forests into timber and, with his ox Babe, reshaped America. Babe’s footprints were said to have created Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Paul was said to have dug the Grand Canyon. In Washington, the tale was told that he dug Elliott Bay and with the dirt he built Mount Rainier, and that he dragged his ax and carved Hood Canal.

At the summer camp of my youth, our swimming hole was a pond on Purdy Creek, amid old second-growth forest. At our annual Paul Bunyan campfire, the story was told that the pond was made when Paul spit his chewing tobacco into Babe’s footprint and declared, “Ain’t that purdy?” At camp we learned to saw logs and how to work a peavey  a pointed-tip tool with a hook for maneuvering logs. 

In his plaid shirt and wool hat, Bunyan personified the taming of the wilderness — a big land that needed big Paul and Babe to transform it.

An expert on Bunyan, professor Robert E. Walls, points out that the Coast Salish peoples of Puget Sound had a figure called Dukʷibeł, the Changer, which also transformed the landscape. Many cultures have such a figure.

Paul Bunyan, of course, was a made-up figure. The origins of his stories are roughly this: in the 19th century, tales of Bunyan are said to have originated in Maine and Canada. He might have been partly based on tales of a rebellious French-Canadian lumberjack whose name, Bon Jean, morphed into Bunyan in English. As the timber industry moved west, so did Paul. Stories shifted to the north woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, to the big timber country of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and California.

If his stories were told in logging camps, at first he tended to be a minor figure in humorous tales. Real lumberjack bunkhouse stories tended to be much rougher and bawdier, but also focused on physical prowess. Paul embodied a kind of working-class hero, folks who took on big jobs and got them done. Paul loved the woods, but he loved chopping them down even more.

In the early 20th century, Paul Bunyan became a celebrity. A timber company wrote some stories about him in a marketing pamphlet. In the early 1920s, two Seattle authors, James Stevens and Esther Shepherd, published books of Bunyan tales, and Stevens’ book became a national bestseller. Stevens and Shepherd popularized Bunyan stories as true American literature, and soon writers and poets — including Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg and many others — seized on him. Thus, Bunyan entered American popular culture.

Paul’s emergence seemed to feed a Euro-American appetite for epic history. An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called Bunyan “America’s Only Folk-lore Character,” saying that while Scandinavians had dwarves, Germans had gnomes, the British had elves — that Americans now had Paul.

Some went further, comparing him to Zeus, Thor, Odysseus and King Arthur. Others were more skeptical. A 1924 editorial in the Oregonian said Paul wasn’t a true legend but a “whimsical fiction, roughly hewn by versatile liars.” In other words, just another bogus character in tall tales.

Scholars of folklore weighed in, contending that the “folk” never really talked about Paul. It was advertising people, marketers, the timber industry trying to sell an image. Could it be that Paul was no more mythological than the Michelin Tire Man or the Jolly Green Giant? One professor who studied the actual tales of loggers said Bunyan was “fakelore,” not folklore. An academic debate raged.

But the public didn’t care. Paul could be a messenger of America, embodying different ideologies. The artists of the New Deal era put him in murals. Socialists claimed him as a representative of the proletariat. Timber barons used him to push back against Wobblies in the logging camps — Paul Bunyan didn’t need a union to overcome problems! Bunyan was exploited as a hero of free enterprise.

The poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten got together and wrote an operetta about Paul. It was a bizarre and colossal flop. You wonder what the elevator pitch on that was: “Auden/Britten/Bunyan!” Unbelievable, but true.

Walt Disney did a cartoon of Paul. He had his own radio series. More books poured forth. His name was attached to logger rodeos and timber town events. His image was used to promote good forest management, even if Paul — in most tales — never spared a tree.

For the past 100 years, the Bunyan story has been unstoppable. But things have changed. The timber business is mechanized and industrial. Paul isn’t around to deal with climate change and vanishing forests that were big enough to challenge him. He never had to cope with the spotted owl or mills shutting down. He and Babe tromping on nature is hardly fashionable now. At least one recent story suggests Paul got tired of cutting trees and retired to Alaska.

But he’s not done yet. Popular culture is fluid. Things morph from one era to the next. While our environmental consciousness has evolved from Paul’s heyday, he is still around in chainsaw art, and he even pops up to meet Captain America as an avatar of national character in a Marvel comic book. He’s still in print in Golden Book editions, and some local libraries still hold Paul Bunyan Day in the children’s section.

In many respects, Bunyan is like the superheroes who followed him, more akin to Superman, Wonder Woman or Spider Man, characters that sprang from the minds of artists and writers to capture the public’s imagination. Who decides today what is “folk” and what is not when we’re playing computer games in fantasy realms, obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien and superhero movies, reading graphic novels, surfing from pop-culture meme to meme, or creating our own alternative facts and realities on social media?

I suspect Paul and Babe will find a home somewhere in the 21st  century.

Paul, with his beard and flannel and suspenders, might be old-fashioned, but he wanders a cultural landscape increasingly populated by imaginary beings and events. Someday, he just might be the basis of some kind of cult that worships a bearded plaid-shirted being on your screen.

It’s just possible, you know.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.