From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Love won the day, and there was the foremost scholar in the world prancing about on all fours like a colt, with a saucy girl on his back, when Alexander appeared at the window." --Women of Mediaeval France (1907) by Pierce Butler
A legend (Latin, legenda, "things to be read") is a narrative of human actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within human history and to possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude. Legend, for its active and passive participants, includes no happenings that are outside the realm of "possibility", defined by a highly flexible set of parameters, which may include miracles that are perceived as actually having happened, within the specific tradition of indoctrination where the legend arises, and within which it may be transformed over time, in order to keep it fresh and vital, and realistic.
Etymology and origin
The word "legend" appeared in the English language circa 1340, transmitted from mediaeval Latin language through French. Its blurred extended (and essentially Protestant) sense of a non-historical narrative or myth was first recorded in 1613. By emphasizing the unrealistic character of "legends" of the saints, English-speaking Protestants were able to introduce a note of contrast to the "real" saints and martyrs of the Reformation, whose authentic narratives could be found in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Thus "legend" gained its modern connotations of "undocumented" and "spurious".
Before the invention of the printing press, stories were passed on via oral tradition. Storytellers learned their stock in trade: their stories, typically received from an older storyteller, who might, though more likely not, have claimed to have actually known a witness, rendered the narrative as "history". Legend is distinguished from the genre of chronicle by the fact that legends apply structures that reveal a moral definition to events, providing meaning that lifts them above the repetitions and constraints of average human lives and giving them a universality that makes them worth repeating through many generations. In German-speaking and northern European countries, "legend", which involves Christian origins, is distinguished from "Saga", being from any other (usually, but not necessarily older) origin.
The modern characterisation of what may be termed a "legend" may be said to begin in 1865 with Jacob Grimm's observation, "The fairy tale is poetic, legend, historic." Early scholars like Karl Wehrhahn Friedrich Ranke and Will-Erich Peukert followed Grimm's example in focussing solely on the literary narrative, an approach that was enriched particularly after the 1960s by addressing questions of performance and the anthropological and psychological insights provided in considering legends' social context. Questions of categorizing legends, in hopes of compiling a content-based series of categories on the line of the Aarne-Thompson folktale index provoked a search for a broader new synthesis.
In an early attempt at defining some basic questions operative in examining folk tales, Friedrich Ranke in 1925 characterised the folk legend as "a popular narrative with an objectively untrue imaginary content" a dismissive position that was subsequently largely abandoned.
Compared to the highly-structured folktale, legend is comparatively formless, Helmut de Boor noted in 1928. The narrative content of legend is in realistic mode, rather than the wry irony of folktale; Wilhelm Heiske remarked on the similarity of motifs in legend and folktale and concluded that, in spite of its realistic mode, legend is not more historical than folktale.
Legend is often considered in connection with rumour, also believable and concentrating on a single episode. Ernst Bernheim suggested that legend is simply the survival of rumour. Gordon Allport credited the staying-power of certain rumours to the persistent cultural state-of-mind that they embody and capsulise; thus "Urban legends" are a feature of rumour. When Willian Jansen suggested that legends that disappear quickly were "short-term legends" and the persistent ones be termed "long-term legends", the distinction between legend and rumour was effectively obliterated, Tangherlini concluded.
Legends are tales that, because of the tie to a historical event or location, are believable, although not necessarily believed. For the purpose of the study of legends, in the academic discipline of folkloristics, the truth value of legends is irrelevant because, whether the story told is true or not, the fact that the story is being told at all allows scholars to use it as commentary upon the cultures that produce or circulate the legends.
Hippolyte Delehaye, (in his Preface to The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography, 1907) distinguished legend from myth: "The legend, on the other hand, has, of necessity, some historical or topographical connection. It refers imaginary events to some real personage, or it localizes romantic stories in some definite spot."
From the moment a legend is retold as fiction its authentic legendary qualities begin to fade and recede: in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving transformed a local Hudson River Valley legend into a literary anecdote with "Gothic" overtones, which actually tended to diminish its character as genuine legend.
Stories that exceed these boundaries of "realism" are called "fables". For example, the talking animal formula of Aesop identifies his brief stories as fables, not legends. The parable of the Prodigal Son would be a legend if it were told as having actually happened to a specific son of a historical father. If it included an ass that gave sage advice to the Prodigal Son it would be a fable.
Legend may be transmitted orally, passed on person-to-person, or, in the original sense, through written text. Jacob de Voragine's Legenda Aurea or "The Golden Legend" comprises a series of vitae or instructive biographical narratives, tied to the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. They are presented as lives of the saints, but the profusion of miraculous happenings and above all their uncritical context are characteristics of hagiography. The Legenda was intended to inspire extemporized homilies and sermons appropriate to the saint of the day.
Some famous legends
- Cenodoxus, or the Damnation of the Good Doctor of Paris, told as an event justifying the sanctification of St. Bruno
- Celtic Legends
- El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth
- King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
- Legends of Africa
- Philosopher's stone
- Ramayana Legend of Rama the prince of Ayodhya
- Robin Hood
- Romani legends and Romulus and Remus
- Vlad the Impaler; stories of his cruelty have attained legendary status, most likely spread after his death by his enemies.
- William Tell
- Virgilian legends in the Middle Ages