I. What is a Legend?
A legend (/ˈlejənd/) is a story about human events or actions that has not been proved nor documented in real history. Legends are retold as if they are real events and were believed to be historical accounts. They usually tell stories about things that could be possible, so both the storyteller and the audience may believe they are true. Its meaning stems from the Medieval Latin term legenda, meaning “things to be read.” and from the Latin legendus.
The details in legends are altered and adapted over time so that they stay interesting for audiences—for instance, the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone (a magical stone that can make a person immortal and turn metals into gold) can be found in literature in the Middle Ages to the modern day Harry Potter series. Legends don’t claim to be exact retellings of events, so they are neither wholly believed nor wholly doubted by the audience or the author.
Sometimes, it’s hard to say whether a legend is fiction or nonfiction—the truth behind it can be unclear. For example, the legends of the Lochness Monster and Bigfoot are based on real sightings, but their existence remains unproved today. Conversely, an urban legend is a fictional story in popular culture that is known to be false, for example; a rumor passed on year after year to each new group of freshmen about an old janitor who used to murder students at the local high school.
Though this article focuses on the literary definition, it is important to note that nowadays, we also use the term “legend” when we want to emphasize something’s fame or importance. We often describe things as “legendary”— for example, we would say that Babe Ruth is a legend of baseball and Elvis is a rock and roll legend, “legendary” in popular culture.
II. Example of a Legend
Read the short story below:
Alongside the river in Old Usquepaugh, Rhode Island is an old grist mill that was built the 1700s. It is settled beside a misty waterfall, its wheel spinning in the water all day and night to churn out corn. Across from the mill, workers built small cottages into the sides of the hill with stones and stone and packed the walls with horse hair for warmth. On one night in October, during the full moon, one of the workers noticed that the mill’s wheel stopped spinning, so he pulled on his coat and walked to the mill. He thought he saw a branch wedged in the top of the wheel, so climbed a ladder to the roof. As he reached to grab the branch, he lost his footing, falling into the rocky falls below. His body was never found. They say that every October, on the night of the full moon, the wheel stops turning as it did that night long ago…and coming from the mist of the falls, you can hear the sound of a man moaning.
The ghost story above could be a legend for several key reasons. First, it is based on a real place and corn mill in Rhode Island, where the mill worker’s cottages still stand today. Second, the plotline is believable and possible. Third, the details are ambiguous…does the wheel really stop every October? It’s possible. Can you hear a man moaning? Unlikely…but could it be real? As you can see, parts of the story are real, but other parts are, perhaps, fiction.
III. Importance of Legends
As stories, mankind has and always will love legends—they are an intriguing form of storytelling because we want to believe that they are true. They are an essential part of oral and written folklore; they are found in folktales from all cultures (see Related Terms). It is part of our nature to share interesting and significant tales with friends and future generations so that they can be recorded and remembered. As much as people like to tell stories, they like to exaggerate even more, which is why legends are so timeless—their facts have been embellished and changed so many times that the truth becomes a mystery that still might need to be solved, and that makes them particularly intriguing. So long as we continue to pass down interesting stories, legends will continue to exist and flourish.
IV. Examples of Legend in Literature
Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is the most famous and influential collection of tales in literature detailing the legend of King Arthur. In fact, all of the stories you’ve ever heard about King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Lancelot, the wizard Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table, and the city of Camelot are likely from Le Morte d’Arthur. The passage below is from the Third Book of Le Morte d’Arthur, in the chapter titled “How the knights of the Round Table were ordained, and their sieges blessed by the bishop of Canterbury”:
When king Arthur heard of the coming of Guenever and the hundred knights with the Table Round, then king Arthur made great joy for their coming, and that rich present, and said openly, This fair lady is passing welcome unto me, for I have loved her long, and therefore there is nothing so lief to me. And these knights with the Round Table please me more than right great riches. And in all haste the king let ordain for the marriage and the coronation in the most honourablest wise that could be devised.
The above selection recounts the day when Guinevere supposedly came to Camelot and Arthur’s plans for their wedding. Furthermore, Malory describes the arrival of the “Table Round” and the knights that were carrying it. But, whether or not any of this actually happened remains debatable. While it is generally believed that King Arthur was a real historical figure, the particulars of his life and rule are uncertain, unreliable, and unclear—thus, all of the stories about King Arthur are legends.
The legend of the vampire Count Dracula has been inspiring vampire stories and culture for two centuries. Bram Stoker unveiled this character in the iconic 1897 horror novel Dracula. Stoker did not create the legend that vampires exist, but he created our idea of vampires—the character Dracula represents our modern perception of vampires in every way. Visualize a “classic” vampire—you probably see an ancient man with pale white skin, sharp fangs dripping red, a cape shaped like a bat’s wings, and a sinister desire for human blood. Furthermore, you imagine that he can only come out at night, and sleeps in a coffin during the day, and is cold to the touch, like a corpse. Read the following passage from Dracula—
I raised the lid, and laid it back against the wall; and then I saw something which filled my very soul with horror. There lay the Count, but looking as if his youth had been half renewed, for the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron-grey; the cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath; the mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran over the chin and neck.
Here, the narrator finds the Count in his coffin at night, having clearly just fed on human blood. Stoker’s description above paints the perfect picture of today’s classic vampire. From horror flicks, to teen vampire novels, to scary Halloween costumes, to Count Chocula breakfast cereal, Stoker’s Count Dracula has infiltrated not only literature, but all parts of popular culture. He successfully turned the age-old legend of evil beings that drink human blood into iconic image. Interestingly, Count Dracula was supposedly inspired by a 16th century Romanian general of the same name, which tempts audiences to wonder…could vampires be real?
V. Examples of Legend in Pop Culture
Legends are often based on creatures that could be real, but haven’t been proven to exist according to science. These legends often date back centuries and have been retold generation after generation up until today, where they remain mysteries. Bigfoot, the Lochness Monster, and the Abominable Snowman are three prime examples of legends that some people are still searching for. On the Discovery Channel show River Monsters, biologist and TV presence Jeremy Wade explores reported sightings of giant river creatures. In the series special “Legend of Loch Ness,” Wade tries to uncover the mystery of the legend of the Loch Ness monster, as he introduces in the following clip:
In his introduction, Wade explains why this legend is so hard for him to believe—yet he is still setting out on a mission to discover the monster in Loch Ness, truly believing it could exist. There are an abundance of documentaries and episodes on television tackling legends just like this. Nowadays, with the ability to capture things on videos, you’d think it would be easier to prove and disprove these creatures’ existence—but in fact, it makes people question more and search even harder.
Some authors and artists create fictional legends based on personal ideas, as did the creators of The Legend of Zelda, a fantasy video game series that has been a gaming favorite since the first release 1986. The back-story was dreamt up by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka and was then developed by Nintendo. The game designers turned Miyamoto’s childhood memories into their own fantasy world; complete with the legend of the elf warrior Link and his many quests. Link is the protagonist and the games’ playable character, and in each version of the game he is tasked with saving the princess Zelda. Game play is set in the kingdom of Hyrule, which has its own complex history. So, the legend of Zelda isn’t a legend from man’s history—it’s a legend from Hyrule’s history. In the clips below, a fan outlines the detailed history of Hyrule, its major figures, and the legend of Zelda.
History of Hyrule Part I:
History of Hyrule Part II:
The Legend of Zelda has also been made into several animated TV series, comic books, and other forms of media. Since the 1980s, a new video or computer game has been released every few years, each with fresh storylines and quests for Link to complete.
VI. Related Terms
Folktales are classic stories that have been passed down throughout a culture’s oral and written tradition; together they make up a culture’s folklore. They usually involve some elements of fantasy and explore popular questions of morality and right and wrong, oftentimes with a lesson to be learned at the end. A legend is a particular type of story found in oral and written folklore.
A myth is a classic or legendary story that usually focuses on a particular hero or event, and explains mysteries of nature, existence, or the universe with no true basis in fact. Sometimes, myths use legends as part of the story. The primary difference between the two forms is that overall, myths are now known and believed to be false, while many legends can still be based on some level of truth. Furthermore, legends are generally about human affairs, while myths almost always involve the gods and goddesses—for instance, the story of Hercules is a myth, while the story of King Arthur is a legend.
Today this day, legends have a significant role in not only literature, but popular culture as well. They are timeless stories that can be adapted for any audience in any style, making them an invaluable form of storytelling.