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What is a Legend?

Mary Elizabeth
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Legend has several related meanings. A legend today may be someone of noted celebrity, with larger-than-life accomplishments, whose fame is well-known. Another meaning of this word is a literary genre. In this capacity, the term is much-abused, used synonymously with myth, tall tale, and history. However, it makes more sense to use the term legend — as it is, in fact, often used — to name a type of literature that falls somewhere between myth, tall tales, and history and that otherwise has no name.

In this sense, legend differs from myth, if we understand myth to be focused on explaining natural phenomena, answering questions about why things are the way they are in the natural world, because legend is focused on individuals and their accomplishments. It also differs from tall tales, which focus on hyperbole — and therefore humor — and intentionally ascribe inventions and innovations to a hero to whom they do not belong for the sake of the story. Finally, it is separated from history by the fact that its content, once believed to have been true, turns out to be fictional. The heroes of legend in this sense, then, are fictional heroes or real people whose exploits aren’t quite what they’re made out to be, who were either so lifelike or so admirable that people wished they were real. This description fits the works and heroes typically associated with the genre.

The stories of King Arthur are legends in this sense. It is possible that the tales of this king are based on an historical figure who lived in the fifth or sixth century, but the stories have, there is little doubt, grown beyond the historical record, if there was one. Robin Hood, the legendary late medieval outlaw/hero, is another such: the man in the stories may or may not be based on a real person, but the stories certainly grew beyond the man, if there was a man. Boudicca or Boadicea, the first century British queen who led an attack against the Romans, was defeated, and reportedly ended her own life with poison, was undoubtedly an historical figure, but her life has been turned into legend, at least in some accounts.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By anon320840 — On Feb 19, 2013

A myth is an occurrence that takes place in an ante-historical past, in a time that is not our own and has little relation to the natural laws we understand. A myth attempts to explain why the world we know has come to be, whether on the scale of the Earth's creation, or of why a certain mountain range exists, or why people are a certain way.

A legend is an occurrence in the historical past (regardless of its truth or not), and attempts to explain the occurrence itself, the persons involved, and why it may still hold relevance to us. (Legend says this house is haunted because...)

A folk tale (tall tall) is an historical story. Unlike myth and legend, a folk tale is always in narrative form. A folk tale is always regarded as fiction, and as its purpose is to impart common sense, morality, or social values, the veracity of the story is unimportant.

At least this is what I have come to understand.

By anon319385 — On Feb 12, 2013

A legend is a story that has only an element of truth.

By anon177071 — On May 17, 2011

Thanks. Best explanation of a legend I have found on the web.

By anon124173 — On Nov 04, 2010

A legend doesn't have evidence that it is true, but a myth can be true or false and it has evidence.

By alex94 — On Jul 11, 2010

@cmsmith10: A myth is a traditional story that usually is an attempt to explain supernatural events and mysteries. Sometimes sacred, a myth often involves creatures or gods. It represents reality in a dramatic way.

A legend is a story that is usually historical and without substantiation. An example of a legend would be Robin Hood or King Arthur. Whereas, there is evidence of their existence, stories have been created and changed through the years.

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 11, 2010

What is the difference in a legend and a myth?

By bookworm11 — On Jul 09, 2010

A legend can also be a table that describes symbols on a map or chart. For instance, many maps have a legend that equates a star symbol to a region's capitol.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth

Writer

Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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