Myth, legend and folktale


In common speech these words are sometimes used interchangeably, which can be confusing. They all describe things that may have happened, or may not. Distinguishing between them can be useful for students.

Folktale is about things that are shocking, marvellous, frightening or disgusting, told in order to rouse strong feelings.
The story of the Cyclops was folktale; so was the story of the country where the sun hardly set. This latter was of course part of Phoenician naval lore passed on down the years. Taken out by Greeks to repeat at parties, it became folktale.
Folktale is perennial: one hears it being told by children in school corridors, and a modern variation is the stuff purveyed on clickview websites.

Legend is imperfectly recorded history—or biography—with things added or subtracted over the years, and its purpose is often to instruct or inspire. Legend can have mythical content.

Myth is something different, with a flavour of its own, capable of striking ‘roots far below the surface’ of people’s minds.This is the way C S Lewis describes it in An Experiment in Criticism.
It does not even need to be a story. Lewis remarks that ‘The Hesperides, with their apple‑tree and dragon, are already a potent myth, without bringing in Herakles to steal the apples.’
Myths seem to evolve in human societies, but sometimes they have been created by one person. Sometimes they are real events that have taken a hold over people’s minds, such as the story of Billy Budd.
Myth has had the power to change or motivate the behaviour of whole human societies. Stories and ideas with mythical quality might arguably include:

  • Gold in the West
  • The descent to the underworld and return from it
  • Man making himself into a god (non-scientific ‘evolutionism’)
  • God becoming man
  • Fashioning a human being (Pygmalion; robots)
  • The ideal woman (as focus of mediaeval chivalry)
  • Back to nature (the Romantic movement)

And then there is the nexus of myth that makes up the Aboriginals’ Dreamtime, linking them with the land in a way that the European settlers have not fully understood.

Next post: Stories.

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