It happened to my cousin’s best friend’s roommate

All right, we’ve talked folktales into the ground (at least for now). Time for legends!

I went at them in this order because it’s easier for me to define legends in contrast with folktales. (Here again I’m drawing from Max Lüthi — his book The European Folktale: Form and Nature.) Remember when I talked about folktale style? Legend style is everything that isn’t.

A legend doesn’t take place “once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom.” It happens in the real world, at a real time: “Back when Oliver Cromwell was ruling England, at the bridge over the river . . . .” “When my grandfather was a little boy, and he was riding through the forest . . . .” This is not, of course, to say that they are history. The events they describe may never have happened. (In fact, they probably didn’t.) Different versions of the story may claim it happened at different times; it may stay “when my grandfather was a little boy” through multiple generations of tellers. But the claim that this story belongs to reality? That stays the same.

Ghost stories usually fall into this class. The lady all in white doesn’t haunt Sleeping Beauty’s castle; Anne Boleyn haunts the Tower of London. Urban legends aren’t called urban folktales; the hook-handed man stalks couples out on the old logging road, and the promiscuous roommate was murdered at the local college. This is changing a bit as those things get commodified — I know I bought collections of those tales when I was in elementary school, and they tended to make the story generic rather than localized (for obvious reasons). But urban legends still take place in the “real world,” or claim to.

The reality goes further than just the setting. I said before that folktale characters don’t freak out when faced with weird things like talking animals, and readily mutilate themselves without even saying “ow.” Such is not the case with a character in a legend. Many of these stories involve scary things, and guess what? THEY’RE SCARY. If people get hurt, it hurts! There may be supernatural elements in the story — there usually are — but the depiction of them is more like you would expect if they occurred in real life.

And if that makes you start thinking “urban fantasy” — well, that’s a post for two weeks from now!



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


It happened to my cousin’s best friend’s roommate — 5 Comments

  1. I spend time with local Indian legends and folklore. I discovered that “In my grandfather’s time” could mean anything from 30-300 years. Especially interesting to me when the tribes describe an eruption of Mt. St. Helens in “My grandfather’s time.” Guess what? The old lady blows her cool about every 200 years. If not grandfather, then great-great father saw it, or felt the earthquake.

    Same thing with the coming of the white men. Turns out Spaniards drifted up the Columbia River leaving blue-eyed progeny, but we are also finding some Irish and/or Vikings that came through “in my grandfather’s time.”

    • Yep. The timestamp of a legend is more a matter of laying claim to the “reality” of the story than it is a historical record — some of the time, anyway. There certainly is folklore, both of the legend type and otherwise, that contains historical information.

  2. I am sure there is an element of truth in folktales. The characters/hero could have existed, they could have also done what they said they done. When they return to tell their tale, it is their version of the tale that is exaggerated, but very interesting!

    • Well, some of them. Folktales less so than legends; the odds that something like “Sleeping Beauty” is based on any real historical incident are pretty low.