Myth vs Legend vs Fairy Tale
What’s ACTUALLY the difference between a fairy tale, a myth, and a legend?
We’re glad you asked!
This is a question that comes up a lot, so we’re going to break it down in a few different ways:
- The “quick test” that shows you which kind of story you’re looking at.
- If you want the long version, we’re sharing the definitions pulled straight from Sara’s dissertation (which had to make it through the gauntlet of four professors, so we stand by it!)
- A video of us explaining these different categories together!
Let’s do this!
The Quick Test:
The fastest way to determine whether a story is a myth, a legend, or a fairy tale? Ask the question “what is the truth status of this story?” In other words, how “true” is this story supposed to be? We’ll break it down for you:
Legend: ambiguous or liminal truth status. The listener has to evaluate whether or not they think the story is really true. Think: stories about Slenderman or King Arthur. Wondering “Is this real?” or “Did this really happen?” is built into the story. Legends are also rooted in identifiable places and times, which helps us identify them!
Fairy Tale: not believed to be literally true. When you hear a version of Cinderella, you’re not really prompted to wonder “Did this happen?” or “Is this true?” You can also spot fairy tales because they’re usually set in a magical or otherworldly time and space (i.e. once upon a time.)
Myth: true in a profound way for the culture that tells them. Myths are sacred stories, often about the origins of the world/ universe or the way the world came to be the way it is. Myths are often set during the creation of the world, at a distance from the every day.
Super Detailed Definitions From Sara’s Dissertation:
“Fairy tale” is the popular, or lay, term for what folklorists often refer to as “International Wonder Tales” or “Märchen.” They have been classified in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index from 300-749. In The Folktale (1946) Stith Thompson describes them as tales “involving a succession of motifs or episodes. [They move] in an unreal world without definite locality or definite creatures and [are] filled with the marvelous. In this never-never land, humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses” (Thompson 8). They generally involve some type of quest or search that the hero or heroine must undertake. While these tales are often popularly conceived of as children’s stories, this belief is a nineteenth-century construct; they were once considered primarily to be adult entertainment. Fairy tales can be oral or literary, and tales often migrate between these seemingly separate incarnations. Fairy tales can be used to instruct or entertain, to caution and to inspire, to reinstate the status quo or to incite rebellion – they are an incredible versatile form that adapts to the needs and values of the teller and their culture.
According to Elliott Oring, legends recount an episode which is “presented as miraculous, uncanny, bizarre, or sometimes embarrassing”—there is always something unusual or noteworthy about the contents of a legend (Oring 125). Most significantly, “the narration of a legend is, in a sense, the negotiation of the truth of these episodes … at the core of the legend is an evaluation of its truth status” (Oring 125). Different tellers and receivers of a legend might assess it as true, false, or indeterminate, but “this diversity of opinion does not negate the status of the narrative as legend because, whatever the opinion, the truth status of the legend is what is being negotiated. In a legend, the question of truth must be entertained even if that truth is ultimately rejected. Thus, the legend often depicts the improbable within the world of the possible” (Oring 125). Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsonyi inaugurated this emphasis on belief as the core component of the legend, insisting that:
It is not necessarily the belief of the narrator or the belief of the receiver-transmitter that we have to consider; rather, we must consider, abstractly, so to speak, the belief itself that makes its presence felt in any kind of legend. The legend tells explicitly or implicitly almost without exception that its message is or was believed sometime, by someone, somewhere … as much as it seems proven that the personal belief of the participants in the legend process is irrelevant, it also seems to be a rule that general reference to belief is an inherent and the most outstanding feature of the folk legend. (Degh and Vazsonyi 118)
This ambiguity around truth status means that the contents of legends is frequently that which is unexplainable, unlikely, or even supernatural—indeed, the supernatural legend is a particularly common subtype of the genre. The listener or reader of the legend must evaluate these supernatural episodes, and decide whether or not to believe them. Unlike a fairy tale, which is marked as something outside of every-day possibility, “the legend never asks for the suspension of disbelief. It is concerned with creating a narrative whose truth is at least worthy of deliberation; consequently, the art of legendary engages the listener’s sense of the possible” (Oring 125).
A myth is “generally regarded by the community in which it is told as both sacred and true. Consequently, myths tend to be core narratives in larger ideological systems” (Oring 124). The colloquial usage of the term “myth” is, confusingly, almost the opposite of its folkloric use; labeling a story as a myth is a strategy frequently used to discount it, to insist that it is untrue. However, within the field of folklore, a myth is a narrative that is deeply true to the community from which it springs.
Typically, myths are “set outside of historical time, before the world came to be as it is today,” and they “frequently concern the actions of divine or semi-divine characters” (Oring 124). A myth is “a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all the parts thereof and given their order” (Honko 49). They often explain the world’s origins or address how and why the world, its creatures, and its landscapes have come to be how they are. Folklorist Jeana Jorgensen argues that “one of the major functions of myth is to validate social norms, to explain why the world is the way it is, to rationalize the social relationships and power dynamics of a given society” (Jorgensen). Myths, in short, provide a narrative framework for how to understand the world and one’s place in it.
Want More? Watch This Video!
We made a short video on this subject for a Facebook Live a while back, so we thought we’d share that here as well!
So there you have it! This is how folklorists differentiate between these three terms. So the next time you hear someone say something like “oh, that’s just a myth…”, you can totally be like “well, actually…”
(But maybe in a nice, not super obnoxious way!)
Note: Technically, the third major category of folk narrative is the folktale more broadly speaking, and traditional, oral fairy tales are a sub-category of that group. However, since we specialize in fairy tales – both folkloric and literary – AND that’s what people tend to ask us about, it made more sense to us to focus on them here!