In a cumulative tale, sometimes also called a chain tale, action or dialogue repeats and builds up in some way as the tale progresses. With only the sparest of plots, these tales often depend upon repetition and rhythm for their effect, and can require a skilled storyteller to negotiate their tongue-twisting repetitions in performance. The climax is sometimes abrupt and sobering as in "The Gingerbread Man." The device often takes the form of a cumulative song or nursery rhyme. Many cumulative tales feature a series of animals or forces of nature each more powerful than the last.
Cumulative tales have a long pedigree. In an early Jewish Midrash, considered to date from the sixth century AD, Abraham is brought before King Nimrod, who commands him to worship fire. Abraham replies that it would be more reasonable to worship water, which can quench fire and is therefore more powerful. When this premise is granted, he points out that the clouds, as sustainers of water, are more worthy of worship, and then that the wind that disperses them is more powerful still. Finally he confronts Nimrod with the observation that "man can stand up against the wind or shield himself behind the walls of his house" (Genesis Rabba xxxviii).
There is a similar tale, The Mouse Turned into a Maid, in the Panchatantra, in which the mouse-maid is successively introduced to the sun, the cloud, the wind and the mountain. She prefers each in turn as stronger than the last, but finally a mouse is found to be stronger than even the mountain, and so she marries the mouse. Stories of this type, such as the Japanese The Husband of the Rat's Daughter, are widely diffused.
In the Aarne-Thompson classification system, types 2000–2100 are all cumulative tales, including: