In Praise of Legends:
Understanding the Earliest Literary Genres
Dean Brooks


For almost any reader, movie-goer or parent—and for that matter, anyone who was ever a child!—the world of myths, legends and fairytales is of perennial interest. We are surrounded by examples of their influence, from the Star Wars movies to the Book of Virtues-type story collections of William Bennett, from Disneyland to the psychotherapist’s couch. Yet few of us, if pressed, could give more than the vaguest explanation of what these earliest literary genres really are. But they are worth seeking explanations for, because every other literary form rests on their foundation, and full understanding vastly deepens our reading pleasure.

The common-sense understanding of these terms, as given in dictionary definitions, ironically captures the essence of a longstanding academic debate: under “myth” we have: “A traditional story originating in a preliterate society, dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world.” Under “fairytale,” we read: “A fanciful tale of legendary deeds and creatures, usually intended for children.” Finally, under “legend” we see: “An unverified popular story handed down from earlier times,” as well as “A romanticized or popularized myth of modern times.”

Notice the high degree of circularity in the definitions. The definition of ‘fairytale’ refers to legends; the definition of ‘legend’ refers back to myth; and the definition of ‘myth’ distinguishes that story type not so much by content or form, but primarily by its origin and use. Two discoveries by anthropologist Franz Boas (related in his Tsimshian Mythology, 1916) are of special importance in explaining this bizarre triad. The first is his observation that virtually all cultures—including, for example, the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific—make an explicit tripartite distinction between serious, entertaining, and semi-historical oral tales, with separate terms corresponding to myths, fairytales, and legends. The second is that this distinction applies primarily to the manner of presentation, not the content. “The facts that are brought out most clearly from a careful analysis of the myths and folktales of an area like the northwest coast of America,” said Boas, “are that the contents of folktales and myths are largely the same, that the data show a continual flow of material from mythology to folktale and vice versa, and that neither group can claim priority.” The enduring distinction Boas saw lay in how the material was handled, not in the material as such. A hero might seek a beautiful bride in myth, in legend, and in fairytale, but the metaphysics and the aesthetics of the three stories (as well as their resolutions) would be utterly different.

The academic consensus is that these story genres form a continuum, an interdependent system in which each genre itself conveys a meaning separate from the story content. The debate, then, is over which genre should be considered pre-eminent, defining the basic character of traditional oral literature.

Here we shall make the case for legend. Why legend? The fairytale is pragmatic, empirical, and entirely subjective; the myth is by turns dutiful, transcendental, mysterious and rationalistic, presenting intrinsic, ‘higher’ truths; but the legend strives to be, in the best sense of the word, objective. It presents a concrete instance of a general truth or moral ideal, a blueprint, and then exalts it: an inductive generalization embodied by a ‘real’ individual. The content of a legend can vary widely—after all, one can make a legend out of Timur Lenk or Genghis Khan as easily as Odysseus. Which legends we exalt depends necessarily on our view of what is good and true. However, the legendary method of storytelling is inherently superior to either myth or fairytale forms, and has proven itself superior by giving a foundation to everything from epic poetry to fourteenth-century romances to Shakespeare to the modern novel and adventure movies. Tragedy finds its roots in myth, and comedy finds complementary roots in fairytales; but legends are the true precursor to drama, with all that this implies.

To see this relationship among the forms, we begin one level below myths, legends, and fairytales, with the proto-stories of the Melanesians.

The simplest works of the Melanesian storytellers are apt to remind one of the chatter of three-year-olds playing in a sandbox. There is a narrative, some semblance of characters and plot, but it is hallucinatory and disjointed, arbitrary in the extreme. In one story, a buffalo and a crocodile call upon domestic objects floating in a river to settle a dispute between them (and are refused); in another, an egg, a snake, a centipede, an ant, and a piece of dung set out on a head-hunting expedition. In still another, a tapa-beater (a domestic article) transforms itself into the form of a particular woman and deceives another woman into travelling with it; for which deception it is eventually thrown into a fire and burned up.

Susanne K. Langer tackled this mysteriously primitive outlook in her essay “Life-Symbols: The Roots Of Myth,” from her book Philosophy in a New Key (1941):

In these stories we have certainly a very low stage of human imagination; one cannot call them “myths,” let alone “religious myths.” For the leaf-plate which refused to arbitrate a quarrel (it was peeved, by the way, because it had been thrown out when it was still perfectly good), the equally unobliging mortar and mat, the piece of dung that went head-hunting… are not “persons” in disguise; despite their humanoid activities they are just domestic articles.

For Langer, “the psychological basis of this remarkable form of nonsense lies in the fact that the story is a fabrication out of subjective symbols, not out of observed folkways and nature-ways.” There is invariably some thread of logic to the story that brings it above the level of random dreaming, but basically such stories are “formulated and told and re-told as a means of self-expression.” To put it another way, whatever the motive of the teller or the broad psychological value of self-expression, the story of the leaf-mat or the tapa-beater is clearly focused on rearranging concretes, the free play of storytelling. No great chain of abstractions stands above it, structuring the action; the concretes are merely being tried out in this arrangement, to see what amusement and pleasure that might bring. It is not so much induction and abstraction, but imagination (the vital precursor to induction) that is being exercised. This extremely simple form is like the one-celled organism of literature’s biological chain of development. From it eventually spring myths, fairytales, and legends.

“As the story goes abroad,” says Langer, “it meets with more rigorous demands for significance.” It develops a range of sub-genres, each with conventions and techniques; the primitive ghost story, the bold trickster story, and finally the fully developed fairytale. Its power and interest grows as it leaves behind the purely localized subject matter of crocodiles and cannibals and exchanges them for clever and lucky low-born heroes, kings, witches, and dragons. There is a developed structure of ideas—storytelling rules—that governs its retelling and that gives it somewhat greater reach and significance. But if no new impulse comes to transform it, the core story remains in the fairytale mode; it never becomes myth.

So what is it that turns the primitive workings of the early imagination into myth-making?

There are two impulses, moral and cognitive. Langer declares that morally speaking “the fairytale is irresponsible; it is frankly imaginary, and its purpose is to gratify wishes…” In a typical fairytale, a hero may lie or cheat, but remains a hero. His enemies may be clearly superior in prowess or social status, and his efforts may fall far short of the hearer’s supposed moral ideals. In fact, most classic fairytales cast the hero as a youngest son or unwanted daughter, an outcast with no social standing and few noteworthy virtues, just a distinguishing mark or two, like Cinderella or Goldilocks. All that matters is that the hero be sympathetic in some rudimentary way to the listener, the adventures interesting, and her (or his) desires eventually fulfilled—by whatever means necessary. So myth involves an added dimension of moral closure, a sense of broader commitment—not in the form of a trite morality play, but in events charged with moral meaning.

The second impulse is similar. Fairytales avoid universals in cognition just as they do in morality. Their strictly local content springs from the specifically biological self-centeredness and subjectivism of the immature individual, i.e., concern with one’s own body, security within one’s family or home or neighborhood, and the challenge of growth. A kind of playful, diverting subjectivity, a biologically mandated style, governs the choice of what attributes to attach to entities, which is why fairytales so often feature monsters possessing unlikely combinations of fangs, wings, and fur. But the mythic impulse is toward not what could be but what must be, behind the appearances of everyday reality—taking us from three bears in the woods to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Given its driving impulses, myth’s content cannot be described as subjective—that is, it is rarely or hardly local, empirical or concrete, not a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and even though it comes partly from dreams and imagination (just as fairytales do) it is ultimately not personal. The content of myth is instead an elliptical and symbolic presentation of global, general, or, we might say, intrinsic truth. Myth, says Langer, “whether literally believed or not, is taken with religious seriousness, either as historic fact or as a ‘mystic’ truth. Its typical theme is tragic, not utopian; and its personages tend to fuse into stable personalities of a supernatural character.”

This sets the hero of myth strikingly apart from the fairytale hero. No matter how closely the Prince Charming of Snow White’s story resembles the gentleman who awakens Sleeping Beauty, the two characters do not become identified… Fairy stories bear no relation to each other. Myths, on the other hand, become more and more closely woven into one fabric, they form cycles, their dramatis personae tend to be intimately connected if not identified.

To put it another way, myths tend to systematize and rationalize the contents of our universe, and in doing so they go beyond what is objectively true to create somewhat oppressive metaphoric universals. Freedom and gratification no longer govern the process. In a myth, an abstraction is frequently embodied not in several instances that are separate, but as if its whole causal power was in just one concrete. Wind is a god, the ocean is a god, there is a god in the volcano. Myths are underconcretized; they allow us to experience the universe as if one element, its abstract structure, governed everything else. Myth is a world of Platonic Ideals that live and act as if they were real.

Fairytales and myths are complementary. Fairytales tend to imagine how things might be different, to be empirical and unintegrated, to create personally satisfying images of concretes, to let the cut and thrust of real life surprise and gratify in a way that abstractions and oppressive generalities never do. Nothing ever happens quite the same way to two different people in fairytales. Accident, coincidence, improvisation and luck are in control, not causal laws, and the hero of the tale must be their master. In myth, it is living archetypes that must be met, respected, and sometimes fought—not only abstractions embodied as landslides and hurricanes and killer whales and tigers, but space and time and love and hate, the reality of numbers and the unchanging fixity of what is. The human hero’s personal qualities blend and blur. He is not the unsung younger child or the humble tailor, but the embodiment of humanity and such virtue as humanity has, and he usually loses or dies in the end. The Hawaiian myth-hero may steal successfully from the volcano god, may toss eggshells on the sea and so make islands, may do all kinds of wondrous things, but sooner or later some Ideal or other will finish him. The awesome mystery, cruelty, and splendor of the cosmic Other is the point of the story, and not the hero—much less his long nose or mysterious parentage, or her cruel stepsisters.

People in myths may be admirable, but they are not as a rule pleasant company. They are certainly not the person next door, unless you live next door to the brazen hinges of the gates of Hell. Consider Sisyphus and Prometheus, the one forever rolling a rock up a hill and forever seeing it roll back down, the other everlastingly chained to a rock and having his liver torn out by vultures—or consider the Flood legends present in virtually every culture. After reading enough such stories, it becomes clear that it is the rocks and seas and deities, and not the persons, who set the terms and win the day. Rocks, like truths, do not suffer. They do not have personal weaknesses or desires or needs to frustrate, and in the realm of myth, that is a distinct advantage. The gods themselves, to the extent that they are humanized, tend to suffer and face frustration in similar measure, rather than freedom and gratification; for such is the titanic scope of their world that no one—not even a god—fully measures up.

This semi-dichotomy between myth and fairytale serves an important purpose. It sets us in our place (literally) by demonstrating that while the concretes of a life can be rearranged to attain happiness, the governing laws of the universe cannot. When pitted against a specific ogre or the task of swimming a specific river, we may hope to succeed. If we seek to abolish monsters or physical obstacles as such, we know what fate awaits us.

But then what of legend? According to many it represents a kind of detour, dealing with wish-fulfillment truths, or stories that begin with the wish-fulfillment context of the fairytale, yet seek to account in an almost mythical manner for some real event or fact of human existence. Langer explains:

This widely represented fictional character is a hybrid of subjective and objective thinking; he is derived from the hero of folktale, representing an individual psyche, and consequently retains many of that personage’s traits. But the symbolic character of the other beings in the fairytale has infected him, too, with a certain supernaturalism; he is more than an individual wrestling with powers of society… He is half god, half giant-killer… He is born of high parentage, but kidnapped, or exposed and rescued, or magically enslaved, in his infancy. Unlike the dream-subject of fairytale, however, his deeds only begin with his escape from thraldom; they go on to benefit mankind.

Instead of dealing with the tragic fate of Everyman, or with freewheeling fantasies of Any Man, legends deal with an historically real, concrete individual, This Man, who brings into being some general truth that endures to the present. His most representative feats are those that establish a human truth, like the discovery of fire or the making of the first boat, founding a nation or building a temple, or giving birth to some favored line of heroic descendants.

In conveying the status of legend in relation to these two other forms, several irresistable metaphors come to mind. In terms of the attention paid to it by the Platonist, Kantian, and post-Kantian academics, legend is a neglected stepchild. Even Langer (more generous than many writers) calls it a “transitional form” on the way from the frivolity of fairytales to the solemnity of myth, a sterile hybrid, and regards it as falling between two cognitive stools. Yet in terms of what the hero accomplishes, and its significance for literature, legend represents the golden mean—like the porridge or chair or bed that is “just right” for Goldilocks. The tasks of legend are not meant to be neither trivial nor impossible. The legendary hero succeeds and survives in a challenge that is serious—and even more important, the hero is an individual, something no fairytale protagonist or mythic culture-icon can ever be. He is not Adam or Jack, or the Wind or the Water, but Heracles or Daedalus or Odysseus. He does not have the exceedingly simple motives of the tailor who slew seven at one blow, nor are his motives rendered irrelevant by inhuman powers, like Oedipus moving inexorably to tragedy. He pursues his own goal.

It becomes clear, then, if fairytales may be said to belong to childhood, and myths to represent the sad wisdom of age, that legends are the only truly adult story form. And if art is the means of envisaging our highest human possibilities, then legend approaches most closely the prototypical literary art, the root of great literature. So we say: Hail the legend!—the first home of man and woman at their best.

Dean Brooks is a freelance writer and was for two years the Associate Editor of Art Ideas.

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