Definition – Examples – Hallmarks
Hello Lovelies, and welcome to the blog. A few weeks ago, we talked all about the difference between myths and legends, because they are very often lumped together, yet myths and legends are two separate folk tale subgenres. This week, I want to go more specifically into the idea of legend as a genre, and give you some examples of the hallmarks that make up a legend.
Straight from the Oxford Dictionary, a legend is defined as “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” Let’s also bear in mind that as this is a subgenre of folk tales, it means these stories were told and passed down through the oral tradition, though they may be put down into writing these days.
One extreme case is the legend of Atlantis. Popularized only within recent years, Atlantis is a story told by the philosopher Plato and told briefly in Timaeus and mostly in Critias which details a civilization of people that lived in a utopia of sorts, and who ruled from on high with an iron fist. They were punished by the gods, warred with ancient Greece, and lost everything, including their lives and their entire island, which sank into the ocean.
Plato was first and foremost a philosopher, and his goal was to teach life lessons. Beyond that, no evidence whatsoever has been found of a civilization the likes of which Plato describes in great detail, despite the fact that many sea floor and archaeological expeditions have tried unsuccessfully to uncover it. Yet even I still wonder to almost blind faith and belief if it could still be out there, somewhere, unseen under some iceberg or hidden under a now-forested area.
If Atlantis as a legend isn’t a strong enough example, perhaps Dracula might be the tale that provides a better example. You may be surprised to learn that there is actually no consensus on how Bram Stoker came up with his chilling character, the Count Dracula, even though you’ve likely heard that it was based on Vlad Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler, the blood-thirsty ruler of Wallachia. This idea was popularized by a biography written after Stoker’s death which suggested a friend of Stoker’s may have mentioned the ruler as a possible source. Stoker actually mentions that he found the name Dracula in a public library and began using it then because it meant “Devil” in some languages.
Even knowing all of this, it is so easy to still believe that Vlad the Impaler was the original inspiration for the terrible Count who dined on his guests and stole their very blood. Some of the castle features have been said to be similar–they are both on top of hills at the edge of the cliff by the sea with long narrow roads through the woods to get to them–and that our unlikely heroes have to travel from England to this place in a similar area as Vlad Tepes’ own place of rule. Not only that, but legends of vampires are far older than Dracula. They span many years of humanity’s existence. We absolutely believe them to be factual and historical in a lot of places.
Still, there is no evidence–none whatsoever–of actual vampirism. All things considered evidence are easily explainable by actual science, such as the bloating that occurs when a body that has not been properly drained of fluids and embalmed or set to the flames like we do in modern days gets shoved into the ground as-is. Gasses bubble up, become trapped, and corpses not properly disposed of can seem to move of their own accord after death as these trapped gasses look for ways out of the body. What was once thought of as demonic possession and vampirism simply isn’t.
Hallmarks of a Legend
We need to keep in mind that legends are stories that are of real people, places, or things that people take to be basically historically accurate, but are in fact unprovable. If there is something unexplainable in the historical account, you might be able to craft a legend around that unexplainable facet. Or if some part of history is too crazy to be real, perhaps when you do some digging, it actually isn’t. Still, it could make a good story.
You can also make up legends about entirely fictional places, and tell them as if they were real. Brandon Sanderson’s character, Wit, also known as Hoid, from his Stormlight Archive series, tells characters who encounter him many stories about people in the past that are often useful or important to the character at that moment in their life. These stories are in-world legends in their own right, though the world they are in is entirely made up.
Continuing through the folk tale genre, next week we are going to be talking fairy tales versus fables. Just like myths and legends, they are often lumped together as if synonymous, when they are in fact two separate subgenres of folk tales. Coming next week, we’ll talk about both their similarities and differences, and just like we did with myths and legends, they will also be getting their very own dedicated blogs shortly thereafter, so I hope you come back and check out the blog for everything that’s in store.
- What is your favorite folk tale subgenre?
- Do you have a favorite myth or legend?
- What genre is your favorite to read in, and do you write in the same genre or a different one?
- What is the most important reason writers should be aware of genre and its conventions?
- What questions would you like to see me answer in a blog post or podcast episode?
Leave your answers in the comments section for this post!