What is a legend?


Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about the legend genre with help from scholars Linda Dégh and others, contributions from the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore Archive, and a wee chunk of fiction by Patrick Rothfuss.

Folkloric Definition of Legend

Folklore scholar Linda Dégh spends no fewer than seventy-five pages exploring various definitions of the legend in her book Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre. By itself, this is a good indication that legend narratives are widely studied among folklorists, and this edition of the newsletter certainly reflects that. But as always, my focus is on bringing folkloristics to writers, so I'm only going to offer those definitions I think might be helpful to you.

Let's start with a quote from the Grimm brothers, which can be found in Chapter Two of Dégh's book:

The fairy tale is more poetic, the legend is more historical; the former exists securely almost in and of itself in its innate blossoming and consummation. The legend, by contrast, is characterized by a lesser variety of colors, yet it represents something special in that it adheres always to that which we are conscious of and know well, such as a locale or a name that has been secured through history. Because of this local confinement, it follows that the legend cannot, like the fairy tale, find its home anywhere. Instead the legend demands certain conditions without which it either cannot exist at all, or can only exist in less perfect form (Grimm and Grimm 1981, xii cited in Dégh 2001, 36).

Dégh notes that in this definition, the Grimms differentiate the world of the fairy tale from the world of the legend. While the fairy tale is fantastical and not tied to a particular time or place, the legend is tied to familiar environments and populated with human beings (Dégh 2001, 36). But the Grimm definition is not without problems. In particular, Timothy Tangherlini critiques the use of the term "historical" to describe legends, writing that even though they refer to real times, places, and people, and even though they purport to represent actual events, legends aren't necessarily historical. Rather, they are historicized, which means they are told as if they were true (Tangherlini 1990, 379). That's a distinction with a major difference where legends are concerned.

While the Grimm brothers differentiate between fairy tale and legend, The Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature differentiates between myth and legend, again with a focus on the latter as a narrative genre containing real times, places and people:

Legend is a conversational narrative whose reported events are set in historical (as opposed to myth’s cosmological) time and whose telling makes possible debate concerning the “real world” occurrence and/or efficacy of the events, characters, folk beliefs, and/or folk customs described. Many legends are migratory—that is, their variants are widely known across different geographical areas. For this reason, as well as the fact that legends deal typically with the ambiguous and the unusual, their plots, character types, and motifs can provide a sense of both familiarity and strangeness for those literary works and films that draw upon them (Brown and Rosenberg 1999, 375).

So according to these texts, legends are:

  • Narratives: Stories which may be told or written as prose.
  • Historicized: Occur in the everyday world and not in a fantastical or cosmological one, told as if they are true.
  • Believable: Contain elements that reinforce the veracity of the story.
  • Migratory: Often widely known by many different variants.
  • Strange: Concerned with the ambiguous, unusual, and bizarre.

I'm going to introduce one more concept before we move on; the contemporary legend, which you might know by the name "urban legend." Gail de Vos writes that contemporary legend structure hangs on three basic elements; authentication, the inclusion of everyday details, and a particular style and tone utilized in the telling. In terms of authentication, tellers of contemporary legends often believe they are true and represent them as such in a few specific ways. The first is an attribution style commonly referred to among folklorists as "friend-of-a-friend" or FOAF. For example, a legend teller might say that the event described in her narrative happened to a neighbour's sister. The second involves situating the narrative in the real world as discussed above. The third is to source the narrative in a reputable mass media outlet such as a major newspaper. Everyday details might include urban locations, technologies, current political concerns, fears about diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and so on. Finally, contemporary legends are told informally in a conversational style that can include what de Vos describes as a "film noir tone," which is often shocking or frightful, may include black humour, and depends upon twist endings for effect (de Vos 1996, 5-7).

With this concept in mind, we can add the following information about contemporary legends to our list of attributes. They are:

  • Authenticated: Attributed to the friend-of-a-friend, situated in the real world, or sourced in reputable mass media.
  • Recent: Contain references to urban locations, current political concerns, technologies, and other elements of modern life.
  • Conversational: Told informally and often with "film noir" tone.

Example of a Legend

Ready to work? Great! Give the short piece that follows a good read, and using the information above, see what elements of contemporary legend you find in it.

Brent Augustus' Legend

Paraphrase of the Legend: 
There's the professor that vanished at Thompson Park? Supposedly the whole park is haunted and back a bunch of years a teacher from JCC [Jefferson Community College, a local school] took some students to the park for class cuz it was such a nice day. Apparently, they were sitting on the grass at the bottom of a little hill while he paced about lecturing. At one point he walked to the top of the hill, turned around and saw the students acting funny, so he came back down the hill. And all of the sudden the students started freaking out, screaming and running around. When he got one student calm enough to talk he found out why. Apparently when the professor walked to the top of the mountain he disappeared. The students got up and started looking for him when he suddenly appeared at the bottom of the hill (Augustus 2010).


How did you make out? Here's what I found.

To my eye, this piece is a prose narrative which has been historicized because it asserts that a real teacher and real students went to a real place where an extraordinary event really happened. This also makes it believable even though it's strange. When I bring Gail de Vos' criteria into the analysis, I can see that the teller has authenticated the narrative with the aforementioned people and places, that the event he describes was recent enough to have occurred at a community college, and that he wrote the narrative itself in a conversational style.

As for the migratory criteria, well, I didn't take the time to look up variations of the "man disappears and reappears in a haunted park" legend. Do you know any? I'll bet my copy of Linda Dégh's excellent book they exist.

How a Legend Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Utilizing Existing Legends

Because legends are tied to life in the world we know, there are many ways to utilize them in fiction. Here are a few ideas:

  • Imagine the origin of a legend you know about. Write a story about the difference between that legend and the reality behind it.
  • Find two versions of a single legend. Write a story with two legend tellers as primary characters and the two communities from which the versions come as settings. Weave the characters and settings into a single fictional narrative.
  • Write characters who are legend trippers; people who visit places where legends are believed to have occurred in the hope they'll experience the strange things they've heard or read about. Sam and Dean Winchester from the Supernatural television series are great examples of fictional legend trippers, but be careful not to derive your characters from them.
  • Craft a mass hysteria around an existing legend and write a story about it. For more information about the way mass hysterias develop out of legends, you might research the Satanic Panic, which happened in the 1990s. I wrote a PhD term paper about that phenomenon, and you can find it on my Academia.edu page if you're interested in researching this idea further.

Whatever you decide to do with existing legends, remember to tread gently where they intersect the lives of existing people. Hundreds and perhaps thousands were harmed by the Satanic Panic, but while their stories might be interesting to fictionalize, they deserve to be treated with dignity.

Creation of New Legends

You might also craft legends and embed them in your stories. Patrick Rothfuss does this brilliantly in The Name of the Wind with the legends about his primary character, Kvothe. We learn who Kvothe's community thinks he is by way of the legends about him, but we also learn who he really is by way of his autobiography. That autobiography begins in Chapter Seven with an introduction Kvothe himself provides:

My name is Kvothe, pronounced nearly the same as "quothe." Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person. I've had more names than anyone has a right to. The Adem call me Maedre. Which, depending on how it's spoken, can mean The Flame, The Thunder, or The Broken Tree. 

"The Flame" is obvious if you've ever seen me. I have red hair, bright. If I had been born a couple of hundred years ago I would probably have been burned as a demon. I keep it short but it's unruly. When left to its own devices, it sticks up and makes me look as if I have been set afire. 

"The Thunder" I attribute to a strong baritone and a great deal of stage training at an early age. 

I've never thought of "The Broken Tree" as very significant. Although in retrospect, I suppose it could be considered at least partially prophetic. 

My first mentor called me E'lir because I was clever and I knew it. My first real lover called me Dulator because she liked the sound of it. I have been called Shadicar, Lightfinger, and Six-String. I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them. 

But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant "to know." 

I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned. 

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. 

You may have heard of me (Rothfuss 2007, chap. 7).

Note Kvothe's conversational tone as he both tells and comments upon his own legends. Also note the historicized narrative, its strange content, and the allusions he makes to multiple versions of those legends. I should offer the caveat that most of them are verified in some fashion or another during the series, while most folk and contemporary legends only sound verifiable. Still, it's a good example of legend crafted for fiction, and it's the sort of thing you can attempt with a working knowledge of the genre.

A Closing Passage on Legend

One of my favourite pieces of scholarship about the legend genre comes from Contemporary Legend: A Reader, edited by Gillian Bennett and my own legend professor, Paul Smith. In it, Phillips Stevens Jr. argues that folklorists have an obligation to speak up during moral panics like the Satanic Panic and identify them for the widespread legends they are. He writes:

Wherever they are, folklorists should get involved, NOW. This stuff is right up their alley. Countering it will take a bit of initiative and energy but no deep research. There are innumerable well-documented precedents for all aspects of the current folklore of satanism. The demonology of an insidious satanic conspiracy fits an easily identifiable pattern common to most major persecutory movements and “witch hunts” — and revitalisation movements as well, which are bred in similar social conditions and differ only in immediate aims...By the nature of their training, folklorists are uniquely equipped to explicate, and to begin to defuse, the current folklore of satanism. Academic folklorists should write more about it, at least. By their own chosen label, “public sector” folklorists have expressed a commitment to public service. They are abrogating their commitment, to their profession and to the public, if they don’t do something about it (Stevens Jr. 1996, 355-357).


That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of the memorate, which is a first-person supernatural narrative.


  • Augustus, Brent C. 2010. MUNFLA Folklore Survey Card, 2010-048/003.
  • Brown, Mary Ellen, and Bruce A. Rosenberg, eds. 1999. Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Ltd.
  • Dégh, Linda. 2001. Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • de Vos, Gail. 1996. Tales, Rumors, and Gossip: Exploring Contemporary Folk Literature in Grades 7-12. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited.
  • Grimm, Jakob Ludwig Karl, and Wilhelm Karl Grimm. 1981. German Legends of the Brothers Grimm. Translated by Donald Ward. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.
  • Rothfuss, Patrick. 2007. The Name of the Wind. New York: DAW.
  • Stevens Jr., Phillips. 1996. “Satanism: Where Are the Folklorists?” In Contemporary Legend: A Reader, edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities; v. 1718. New York: Garland.
  • Tangherlini, Timothy R. 1990. “‘It Happened Not Too Far from Here...’: A Survey of Legend Theory and Characterization.” Western Folklore 49 (4): 371–90. https://doi.org/10.2307/1499751.


This edition of Folklore & Fiction contains materials from the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive. The original collector and donor of these materials was Brent C. Augustus. My thanks to them both for permitting me to use the materials here.

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