The Meaning of Myths, Folklore, Legends, and Fairy Tales

They cannot all be lumped together as mere fanciful tales

Some of the world's earliest stories were deity myths
Some of the world's earliest stories were deity myths.

The terms "myth," "folklore," "legend," and "fairy tale" are often used interchangeably, leading to the misconception that they mean the same thing: fanciful tales. While it's true that these terms may refer to bodies of writing that answer some of life's basic questions, each presents a unique reader experience. They've all stood the test of time, which speaks volumes about their ongoing hold on our imaginations.


A myth is a traditional story that may answer life's overarching questions, such as the origins of the world or of a people. A myth can also be an attempt to explain mysteries, supernatural events, and cultural traditions. Sometimes sacred in nature, a myth can involve gods or other creatures. And a myth presents reality in dramatic ways.

Many cultures have their own versions of common myths, which contain archetypal images and themes. Myth criticism is used to analyze these threads in literature. A prominent name in myth criticism is Northrop Frye.

Folklore and Folktale

Whereas myth has at its core the origins of a people and is often sacred, folklore is a collection of fictional tales about people or animals. Superstitions and unfounded beliefs are important elements in the folklore tradition. The study of folklore is called folkloristics. Folktales describe how a main character copes with the events of everyday life, and the tale may involve crisis or conflict.

Both were originally circulated orally.


A legend is a story that's purported to be historical in nature but that is without substantiation. Prominent examples include King Arthur, Blackbeard, and Robin Hood. Where evidence of the existence of actual historical figures exists, figures like King Richard are legends due in large part to the many stories that have been created about them.

Legend also refers to anything that inspires a body of stories, or anything of lasting importance or fame. The story is handed down orally from earlier times but will continue to evolve with time. Much of early literature began as legend told and retold in epic poems that were passed down orally, then at some point written down. These include masterpieces such as the Greek Homeric Poems (The Iliad and The Odyssey), c. 800 B.C., to the French Chanson de Roland, c. 1100 A.D.

Fairy Tale

A fairy tale may involve fairies, giants, dragons, elves, goblins, dwarves, and other fanciful and fantastic forces. While traditionally intended for children, fairy tales have also moved into the field of literary theory. These stories have taken on lives of their own. In fact, many classic and contemporary books, such as "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Snow White," are based on fairy tales.

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Lombardi, Esther. "The Meaning of Myths, Folklore, Legends, and Fairy Tales." ThoughtCo, Nov. 1, 2017, Lombardi, Esther. (2017, November 1). The Meaning of Myths, Folklore, Legends, and Fairy Tales. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "The Meaning of Myths, Folklore, Legends, and Fairy Tales." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 18, 2018).