Literary Terms: Legend, Myth, and Fairy Tale

March 23, 2015

In our literary terms series, we tackle the gaps of understanding between words. What’s the difference between internal monologue and stream of consciousnesses? Dystopian and apocalyptic? Horror and terror? Today we examine the unique definitions of legend, myth, and fairy tale.

Legends, myths, and fairy tales all have a place in folklore, the main difference between them being content, and whether or not that content has a historical basis.

legend, myth, story, taleLegend: The dictionary defines the noun form of legend as: “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated” and “an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.” But what you need to know is that legends are based on a real historical person or event, and can be narrowed down to a specific time in history. While legends are often embellished over time, they are rooted in reality. King Arthur is a great example, since it has been established he was a real person in history, though his achievements are often exaggerated.

Myth: Where legends are based on historical events and real people, myths are largely rooted in a religion or belief system. Some myths have their origins in something real — like a place, or a group of people that existed historically — but a myth’s purpose is to explain a natural phenomenon, and its content often contains supernatural or fantastic beings, gods, and demigods. Greek mythology is an excellent example, as those myths were derived to explain the seasons or weather. But they also explain, and are strong reflections of, Greek culture and thinking. Paul Bunyan is a strong example of what might seem like a legend, but is actually a myth. His large size, his super-human strength, and the fact that he wasn’t a real person, place his tale in the camp of mythology. The dictionary defines a myth as: “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” What’s tricky, however, is sometimes “legend” is listed as a synonym for a myth. And while the two are closely related, now you know the difference.

Fairy Tale: We’ve all heard fairy tales, and many of our favorite childhood stories fall into this category. What makes a fairy tale unique are elements of the fantastic. Fairy tales contain unicorns, elves, mermaids, and gnomes, for example, as well as other fantastic or magical elements. A girl can sleep for 100 years, or a pumpkin can turn into a carriage. Fairy tales, like myths and legends, can be difficult to describe, but they often (traditionally) contain clear narratives that identify good and evil. Fairy tales were born out of oral folklore and many of them are also fables (told with the purpose of teaching a moral lesson). And while many of them have morphed and changed throughout the years, they remain the bedrock of children’s stories and are beloved among many classic and contemporary authors alike.


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