Legends are one of the most well-known and ancient ways of transmitting stories, and that is why they are part of the cultures of thousands of ethnic groups and nations.

Next we’ll see what the characteristics of the legend are , what defines it as a type of narration belonging to the epic genre, and what its purpose is.

What is a Legend?

Let’s start with the basics: the definition of the term "legend". This is a sub-genre of the epic (a category in which we also find myths, epics, epic poems, sagas, etc.) in which important events that occurred in the past, which are totally or partially fantastic, are explained through narratives transmitted from generation to generation.

In other words, in the legends it is very difficult to know which elements of the story narrated actually happened or not, since there is an overlap between real facts and characters, on the one hand, and fantastic or supernatural ones , on the other.

However, one of the characteristics of legends is that they serve to transmit values and concepts to understand the origins of the social organization of a group (usually considered as a nation or an ethnic group), so that traditionally the veracity of their more general aspects is not questioned, given that they are used to educate and socially unite.

The main characteristics of the Legends

Now that we have seen a summary of what this epic sub-genre looks like, let’s look in more detail at what the characteristics of the legend are and how it plays an important role in the traditions of human social groups.

1. Fantastic elements

One of the most characteristic features of the legends is that in them there are many fantastic elements, including magical events and supernatural entities . This is so for two fundamental reasons.

On the one hand, legends are part of the tradition and culture of social groups, and that means that they appeared before the scientific conception of reality was as strong as it is now. In general terms, for thousands of years people had no way of clearly differentiating between what can and cannot happen according to the natural laws we know today. Therefore, it is very easy that even unintentionally fantastic elements were added to history.

On the other hand, and partly as a consequence of this, when imagining the legends, the priority was not to offer a precise description of how the world works , but to try to transmit concepts and ideas. In other words, the legends obey the logic of relationships between abstract ideas (loyalty, virtue, fear, anger, etc.) and not the logic of realism.

2. Aims to explain facts of history

The legends, in their origin, intended to explain things that hypothetically happened in the past and that serve to better understand some aspect of the here and now. We have already seen that a large part (or even all) of these stories did not really happen, so they are usually interpreted with a mixture of credulity in the face of facts for which there is no proof, on the one hand, and a belief that the events of the past that are explained are captured in the legend through metaphors.

In any case, nowadays legends are generally not seen as a valid source of exact knowledge about the events that took place , but as a cultural reality appreciated precisely for being part of the History of a society regardless of the veracity of its contents.

There are only a few very specific cases in which there is debate about whether legends can give clues about actual historical events, usually when their origins are very old and refer to events that occurred before writing was first used. For example, the legends of the Hadza tribe.

3. The story takes place in a specific place

At first glance, this feature may seem bland, because after all, in today’s world we are used to the fact that most of the stories we read or hear are about specific characters performing actions in specific places. However, we must take into account that in the epic genre it is very common to deal with themes and events of such an abstract nature that we are hardly able to imagine where the events occur .

For example, in narratives that explain the origin of the cosmos or the world from the perspective of myths (a type of narrative known as cosmogonies), it is very frequent that they do not even attempt to describe the environment in which the protagonists of the story move, because these are of a supernatural character and supposedly existed before the concept of space as we understand it today made sense.

However, one of the characteristics of the legend that serves to distinguish it from the rest of the epic narratives is that the action does take place in a specific location, regardless of whether the world in which the events occur is fictitious or actually exists in our cosmos.

4. Very clear use of archetypes

Archetypes are recurrent roles embodied by most of the characters in the stories that have travelled through human history.

Carl Jung and followers of his school of thought, such as Joseph Campbell (best known for his book The Hero of a Thousand Faces), developed this concept to show that the different societies, ethnic groups and cultures that have existed use very similar characters to shape their myths, legends and narratives in general.
Some of these archetypes are the wise old man, the rogue, the child, the hero, etc.

In the legends , the archetype of the hero takes on special importance, who is the protagonist of the story to be told, and who is used as an example to follow and a model of virtue and honorable and courageous behavior.

Thus, legends usually do not contain individuals with very ambiguous and nuanced morality, but the role that each one plays in the story is usually very clear since each one is presented in the narrative.

5. Evolution by oral transmission

Legends have existed both before and after the emergence of writing systems, and at all times have been relatively independent of their translation into pages.

In other words, their existence is not reduced to publishing, copying and editing books, but rather the legends pass from one person to another both through reading and through word of mouth and oral tradition. This, in turn, makes it easier for the legend to change over time, or for several different versions to emerge where before there was only one.

6. The characters are human or semihuman

Since legends are accessible to all social substrates of a culture, their characters must have motivations and concerns that are understandable to all, and as a consequence most of them are human or partially human (psychologically, although their physical appearance may vary greatly), so that they express the most common ideas and feelings .

7. Inclusion of folklore content

The legends adopt as their frame of reference the symbolism and images of local folklore , elements that are easily understood by everyone because they are part of the culture in which they live.

For example, if a legend is told at a point where a demon appears, the listeners will not know instantly that his presence poses danger or at least caution, and that he may try to harm or deceive the good people included in that story. There will be a tendency not to use elements that are very difficult to understand within this frame of reference (for example, a demon that for no apparent reason has a kinder character than the hero).

8. No metafiction resources

Another characteristic of the legend is that its content is presented as separate from the time and space of the reader or listener, and does not acknowledge the existence of the audience or appeal to their participation .

That is to say, in the Legend of King Arthur, for example, there are no moments when a character poses questions to the audience, but in any case he poses them to himself or to another character who is part of the events narrated.

9. The closure of the story is clear

Legends tend not to end in open endings, which leave room for many interpretations. In its closing, something happens that makes it clear that the narration has no further development , and if there is any question left is what interpretation we should extract from the legend already told, and not what happened after that ending.

10. The closing is instructive: there are morals

In most cases, the closing provides a moral interpretation of what actions have been good and what actions have been bad throughout the course of history. The moral is one of the most important characteristics of the legend, which serves to transmit values and behaviour patterns , even if it is in an indirect way and without appealing directly to the listeners or readers (as we have seen).

Bibliographic references:

  • Jansen, H.M.M. (2004). Epic Adventures: Heroic Narrative in the Oral Performance Traditions of Four Continents. LIT.
  • Krapf, N. (1988). Beneath the Cherry Sapling: Legends from Franconia. New York: Fordham University Press.
  • Neveleff, J. (1997). Classification of literary genres. Buenos Aires: Noveduc Libros.
  • Taranilla de la Varga, C.J. (2016). Great myths and legends of history. Córdoba: Almuzara.
  • Tangherlini, T.R. (1990). It Happened Not Too Far from Here…’: A Survey of Legend Theory and Characterization. Western Folklore, 49(4), pp. 371 – 390.