Tall Tales

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

I remember enjoying the original Mr. Peabody & Sherman when I watched Rocky & Bullwinkle as a child.

I also remember Commander McBragg, as another, similar segment — but it originally appeared on something called Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and then on Underdog. Only in syndication did they edit it into Rocky & Bullwinkle.

McBragg’s tales follow in Baron Munchausen’s footsteps:

Near the banks of a large piece of water, which had engaged my attention, I thought I heard a rustling noise behind; on turning about I was almost petrified (as who would not be?) at the sight of a lion, which was evidently approaching with the intention of satisfying his appetite with my poor carcase, and that without asking my consent. What was to be done in this horrible dilemma? I had not even a moment for reflection; my piece was only charged with swan-shot, and I had no other about me: however, though I could have no idea of killing such an animal with that weak kind of ammunition, yet I had some hopes of frightening him by the report, and perhaps of wounding him also. I immediately let fly, without waiting till he was within reach, and the report did but enrage him, for he now quickened his pace, and seemed to approach me full speed: I attempted to escape, but that only added (if an addition could be made) to my distress; for the moment I turned about I found a large crocodile, with his mouth extended almost ready to receive me. On my right hand was the piece of water before mentioned, and on my left a deep precipice, said to have, as I have since learned, a receptacle at the bottom for venomous creatures; in short I gave myself up as lost, for the lion was now upon his hind-legs, just in the act of seizing me; I fell involuntarily to the ground with fear, and, as it afterwards appeared, he sprang over me. I lay some time in a situation which no language can describe, expecting to feel his teeth or talons in some part of me every moment: after waiting in this prostrate situation a few seconds I heard a violent but unusual noise, different from any sound that had ever before assailed my ears; nor is it at all to be wondered at, when I inform you from whence it proceeded: after listening for some time, I ventured to raise my head and look round, when, to my unspeakable joy, I perceived the lion had, by the eagerness with which he sprung at me, jumped forward, as I fell, into the crocodile’s mouth! which, as before observed, was wide open; the head of the one stuck in the throat of the other! and they were struggling to extricate themselves! I fortunately recollected my couteau de chasse, which was by my side; with this instrument I severed the lion’s head at one blow, and the body fell at my feet! I then, with the butt-end of my fowling-piece, rammed the head farther into the throat of the crocodile, and destroyed him by suffocation, for he could neither gorge nor eject it.

I only just learned that famed fantasist Lord Dunsany, known for his poetic, phantasmagorical style, also wrote such tall tales, like The Tale of the Abu Laheeb — with a wonderful framing story:

When I met my friend Murcote in London he talked much of his Club. I had seldom heard of it, and the name of the street in which Murcote told me it stood was quite unknown to me, though I think I had driven through it in a taxi, and remembered the houses as being mean and small. And Murcote admitted that it was not very large, and had no billiard-table and very few rooms; and yet there seemed something about the place that entirely filled his mind and made that trivial street for him the center of London. And when he wanted me to come and see it, I suggested the following day; but he put me off, and again when I suggested the next one. There was evidently nothing much to see, no pictures, no particular wines, nothing that other Clubs boast of; but one heard tales there, he said; very odd ones sometimes; and if I cared to come and see the Club, it would be a good thing to come some evening when old Jorkens was there. I asked who Jorkens was; and he said he had seen a lot of the world. And then we parted, and I forgot about Jorkens, and saw nothing more of Murcote for some days. And then one day Murcote rang me up, and asked me if I’d come to the Club that evening.

I had agreed to come; but before I left my house Murcote surprised me by coming round to see me. There was something he wanted to tell me about Jorkens. He sat and talked to me for some time about Jorkens before we started, though all he said of him might be expressed by one word. Jorkens was a good-hearted fellow, he said, and would always tell a story in the evening to anyone who offered him a small drink; whisky and soda was what he preferred; and he really had seen a good deal of the world, and the Club relied on stories in the evening; it was quite a feature of it; and the Club wouldn’t be the Club without them, and it helped the evening to pass, anyway; but one thing he must warn me, and that was never to believe a word he said. It wasn’t Jorkens’ fault; he didn’t mean to be inaccurate; he merely wished to interest his fellow-members and to make the evening pass pleasantly; he had nothing to gain by any inaccuracies, and had no intention to deceive; he just did his best to entertain the Club, and all the members were grateful to him. But once more Murcote warned me never to believe one of his tales nor any part of them, not even the smallest detail of local color.

“I see,” I said, “a bit of a liar.”

“Oh, poor old Jorkens,” said Murcote, “that’s rather hard. But still, I’ve warned you, haven’t I?”

And, with that quite clearly understood, we went down and hailed a taxi.

It was after dinner that we arrived at the Club; and we went straight up into a small room, in which a group of members was sitting about near the fire, and I was introduced to Jorkens, who was sitting gazing into the glow, with a small table at his right hand. And then he turned to Murcote to pour out what he had probably already said to all the other members.

“A most unpleasant episode occurred here last evening,” he said, “a thing I have never known before, and shouldn’t have thought possible in any decent club, shouldn’t have thought possible.”

“Oh, really,” said Murcote. “What happened?”

“A young fellow came in yesterday,” said Jorkens. “They tell me he’s called Carter. He came in here after dinner, and I happened to be speaking about a curious experience I had once had in Africa, over the watershed of the Congo, somewhere about latitude six, a long time ago. Well, never mind the experience, but I had no sooner finished speaking about it when the young fellow, Carter or whatever he is, said simply he didn’t believe me, simply and unmistakably that he disbelieved my story; claimed to know something of geography or zoology which did not tally in his impudent mind with the actual experience that I had had on the Congo side of the watershed. Now, what are you to do when a young fellow has the effrontery, the brazen-faced audacity…”

“Oh, but we must have him turned out,” said Murcote. “A case like that should come before the Committee at once. Don’t you think so?”

And his eye turned to the other members, roving till it fell on a weary and weak individual who was evidently one of the Committee.

“Oh, er, yes,” said he unconvincingly.

“Well, Mr. Jorkens,” said Murcote, “we’ll get that done at once.”

And one or two more members muttered Yes, and Jorkens’ indignation sank now to minor mutterings, and to occasional ejaculations that shot out petulantly, but in an undertone. The waters of his imagination were troubled still, though the storm was partly abated.

“It seems to me outrageous,” I said, but hardly liked to say any more, being a guest in the Club.

“Outrageous!” the old man replied, and we seemed no nearer to getting any story.

“I wonder if I might ask for a whisky and soda?” I said to Murcote, for a silence had fallen; and at the same time I nodded sideways towards Jorkens to suggest the destination of the whisky. I had waited for Murcote to do this without being asked, and now he ordered three whiskies and sodas listlessly, as though he thought there weren’t much good in it. And when the whisky drew near the lonely table that waited desolate at Jorkens’ right hand, Jorkens said, “Not for me.”

I thought I saw surprise for a moment pass like a ghost through that room, although no one said anything.

“No,” said old Jorkens, “I never drink whisky. Now and then I use it in order to stimulate my memory. It has a wonderful effect on the memory. But as a drink I never touch it. I dislike the taste of it.”

So his whisky went away. We seemed no nearer that story.

I took my glass with very little soda, sitting in a chair near Jorkens. I had nowhere to put it down.

“Might I put my glass on your table?” I said to Jorkens.

“Certainly,” he said, with the utmost indifference in his voice, but not entirely in his eye, which caught the deep yellow flavor as I put it close to his elbow.

We sat for a long time in silence; everyone wanted to hear him talk. And at last his right hand opened wide enough to take a glass, and then closed again. And a while later it opened once more, and moved a little along the table and then drew back, as though for a moment he had thought the drink was his and then had realized his mistake. It was a mere movement of the hand, and yet it showed that here was a man who would not consciously take another man’s drink. And, that being clearly established, a dreamy look came over his face as though he thought of far-off things, and his hand moved very absently. It reached the glass unguided by his eye and brought it to his lips, and he drained it, thinking of far other things.

“Dear me,” he said suddenly, “I hope I haven’t drunk your whisky.”

“Not at all,” I said.

“I was thinking of a very curious thing,” he said, “and hardly noticed what I was doing.”

“Might I ask what it was you were thinking of?” I said.

“I really hardly like to tell you,” he said, “to tell anyone, after the most unpleasant incident that occurred yesterday.”

As I looked at Murcote he seemed to divine my thoughts, and ordered three more whiskies.

It was wonderful how the whisky did brighten old Jorkens’ memory, for he spoke with a vividness of little details that could only have been memory; imagination could not have done it. I leave out the details and give the main points of his story for its zoological interest; for it touches upon a gap in zoology which I believe is probably there, and if the story is true it bridges it.

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