What Is a Legend in Literature?

In Literary Texts, One Use Is as a Narrative Used to Explain an Event

Legend of Icarus
Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. De Agostini/A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

A legend is a narrative — often handed down from the past — that is used to explain an event, transmit a lesson, or simply entertain an audience.

Though customarily told as "true" stories, legends often contain supernatural, bizarre, or highly improbable elements. Types of legends include folk legends and urban legends. Some of the world's most famous legends survive as literary texts, such as Homer's "Odyssey" and Chrétien de Troyes' tales of King Arthur.

Folktales and Legends

  • "Although folktales and legends are both important genres of orally told narrative, in many ways they are decidedly different. As folklorists use the term, folktales are fictional stories; that is, they are regarded as fictions by those who tell and listen to them...
  • "Legends, on the other hand, are true narratives; that is, they are regarded by their tellers and listeners as recounting events that actually took place, although to say so is an oversimplification....Legends are historical accounts (such as the account of Daniel Boone's encounters with Indians); or they are sorts of news accounts (as with 'contemporary' or 'urban' legends in which, for example, it is asserted that a madman with a hook arm recently attacked parked teenagers somewhere nearby); or they are attempts to discuss human interactions with other worlds, whether in the present day or in the past...
  • "However, in the social contexts in which legends are told, attitudes toward the veracity of any given narrative may differ; some people may accept its truth, others may deny it, still others may keep an open mind but not commit themselves." (Frank de Caro, Introduction to "An Anthology of American Folktales and Legends". Routledge, 2015)

How Have Legends Appeared in Literary Texts?

One of the world's most famous legends is the story of Icarus, the son of a craftsman in ancient Greece. Icarus and his father attempted to escape from an island by making wings out of feathers and wax. Against his father's warning, Icarus flew too close to the sun. His wings melted, and he plunged into the sea. This story was immortalized in Breughel's painting "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus", which W. H. Auden wrote about in his poem "Musee des Beaux Arts."

"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."
(From "Musee des Beaux Arts" by W. H. Auden, 1938)

As stories handed down from the past, legends are often revised by each subsequent generation. The first stories of King Arthur, for example, were recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain)", which was written in the 12th century. More elaborate versions of these stories later appeared in the long poems of Chrétien de Troyes. By several hundred years later, the legend was so popular that it became the subject of parody in Mark Twain's humorous 1889 novel "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court".

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Legend in Literature?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/legend-narration-term-1691222. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is a Legend in Literature? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/legend-narration-term-1691222 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Legend in Literature?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/legend-narration-term-1691222 (accessed January 28, 2023).