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).

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