Myth, Legend, and Folktale

This is the post I have been waiting for. Marie Brennan, in a guest post on Jim Hine's journal, encapsulated beautifully so many of the things I have wrestled with about my own fiction recently. My good friend, Rabia, asked me to write a post for her a while back that ended up being about flash fiction, but it was supposed to be about writing myth.

This is that post she asked for.

A Tradition of Storytelling^

You see, Rabia had read "Night Bride," which is a brief myth and not meant to follow the traditional modern storytelling style. At a young age, I was introduced to a rich tradition of folktale, fairytale, myth, and legend. We read Aesop's fables, Grimm's fairytales, great big books of nursery rhymes and folktales from all over the world. I inhaled these. I read and loved the style. I recognized it when I encountered other short stories that mimicked it. I recognized it when I first began to write in it.

"The Alchemist" is a short story long enough to disguise its folktale status, but those who love it have pointed it out to me, recognizing it for exactly what it is. It's kind of like a Christian fairytale, they say, and they're right. The magazines I submitted it to couldn't understand the point of view. It was too distant. They didn't get it. a folktale, while things may be physically distant, they’re spiritually close. In fact, physical distance replaces spiritual distance.

Legends? Are scary. And weird. And the characters in them react appropriately. If a guy comes riding along with his severed head under his arm, the hero not only bats an eyelash, but runs for the hills. Things in legends are physically close, but spiritually distant.

They expected my story to fit the standard of modern fantasy, and it doesn't. The locale is, additionally, fleshed out but not grounded. Deliberately.

In a folktale, things take place in “a land far, far away” — a land that is, furthermore, usually nameless. By contrast, in a legend the action often occurs in a named location, and one that is known. It isn’t just “the dark forest;” it’s that forest on the other side of the river from the village where the tale is being told. Legends are frequently bound into the landscape of the teller: this hill, that rock, the lone oak tree where your horse threw you last week. They’re about the world the audience lives in, and they are concrete.

There is something to be said for the style of these traditional storytelling forms. They are not designed after the fashion of modern stories. They aren't sketches, but they aren't portraits either. They're designed for retelling, for easy recollection, for an oral tradition. I knew that I had wrangled "Night Bride," "The Caller and the Dragon," and "The Great Cat and His Soul" into their desired form when I could tell myself the stories again without reading what I had written. The words would change, but the stories would remain exactly the same and have the same impression, the same feel.

All of a Color^

Myth, legend, and folktale are all of a color, but they are different creatures. The myth is a sacred story and figures humanity, gods, and nature personified. A myth is generally considered true. Folktales are not considered true or sacred. While legends are considered true, they belong to a more recent history and are rarely sacred.

Keep in mind, according to Wikipedia and the general reading experience:

The distinction between myth, legend, and folktale is meant simply as a useful tool for grouping traditional stories. In many cultures, it is hard to draw a sharp line between myths and legends. Instead of dividing their traditional stories into myths, legends, and folktales, some cultures divide them into two categories, one that roughly corresponds to folktales, and one that combines myths and legends. Even myths and folktales are not completely distinct. A story may be considered true (and therefore a mythos) in one society, but considered fictional (and therefore a folktale) in another society. In fact, when a myth loses its status as part of a religious system, it often takes on traits more typical of folktales, with its formerly divine characters reinterpreted as human heroes, giants, or fairies.

In short, all are traditional stories and the exact classification will vary by the culture which gives them birth, the culture I'm writing from. In Vardin:

We have histories, which are accurate, and stories, which are true.

In the world of Breath, myth and legend are little separated, but folktales are considered mere fun stories with good principles to be learned. In the world of Radiance, folktale and legend tend to blur.

Other traditional forms include parables, fables, poetry, music, and more. M.C.A. Hogarth writes beautiful parables and poetry to complement her storyworlds.

The Birth of Myth^

Mythos and folklore are born out of reality, in particular, that mismatch between reality as it is and reality as it is understood. To create traditional literature for a storyworld, you must understand, or at least be aware of, several things:

  • the reality of the world in which your culture exists
  • the culture's understanding of reality
  • the originating culture or subculture of the tradition
  • the culture's approach to literature

Traditional literature are essentially meta. They are not modern forms. It is the same as a fictional letter or reference work mentioned in your story. Traditional literature exists within the storyworld as if it were not fiction.

The Writing of a Myth^

Take "Night Bride." The myth was written in the cultural tradition of the desert caravanners, who descended from those tribes who still hold the oases as home. Reality for them includes the fact that darkness can be banished by a candle, a moon sits in the sky, and dawn and twilight sit between the day and the night.

But then we find the points of faith: Night is the jilted lover of Day, and if you do not put a candle in the window, he will steal your daughter for a bride. When he does find his bride, he builds her a castle: the moon.

The key to writing a myth is to move inside the culture you have created, think in its own confines, and locate the juncture between reality and faith.

Myths are brief, focused things. It can be easy to get sidetracked by the details we outsiders of the culture find fascinating, but myths must be written from inside the culture. Thus, the most interesting "real" feature of this world, that is the nature of breath and power and souls, is addressed in only the most oblique of fashions. This exists only in the personification of the Desert Wind, who the caravanners believe blew the disembodied souls of men into the salt flats, so that children must be fed their souls at birth. That is for another myth.

The Writing of a Legend^

"The Caller and the Dragon" is a rather traditional legend. It meets the basic requirements of being based in fact and thoroughly grounded in the local setting and understanding of the culture that tells it. In Vardin, dragons are very real and the battles fought with them are often deadly.

I overheard a bedtime story told by Rhiannon to her daughter in response to a question and a request. I knew when I heard it unwind that it was a true story, that it was permitted alteration and embellishment within the oral storytelling framework in which it was birthed, and that the end of the story, whether the caller lives or dies, is unknown and considered incidental to the point of the story, which is why the guardians battle the dragons.

A legend is also written inside the culture. Dragons are human. The dragon in this story not only has the dragon kahtcheset, or giftset, but is also identified immediately as a rogue and out of Rothnarak instead of Vardin. The battle occurs at the lake, and in Vardin, there is only one. The descriptions are rooted in cultural norms, abilities, and substances (such as the lotion of the fire dancers) that the hearers of the story would be quite familiar with.

The key to writing legend is to be clear but to not explain. It is a balance most interesting to strike.

The Writing of a Folktale^

Ah! A folktale that is not a traditional story. What do I mean? "The Alchemist" is a folktale written outside of any tradition and set firmly in a world of my own creation. It is not meta for Radiance; it is a story written in a tradition cast aside by most modern fiction.

There is no reason any writer must conform to a particular rule of fiction writing. History has changed the rules more times than we can count, and there is no such thing as universal resonance.

To write in this style, I recommend reading it widely. Read fairytales, folktales, and legends from as many cultures and subcultures as you can. Get a feel for the rhythm of events and language. Remember that the folktale is primarily an oral tradition and consider this when you finalize your words.

Folktales are usually written in omniscient viewpoint. The narrator may or may not intrude obviously, but there is no viewpoint character, only a main character. The narrator tells the reader what he or she needs to know, whether that is in a character's mind or not. It is like sitting down at the feet of the bard and listening.

The village alchemist was a little old man tottering about his snug, comfortable little house at the edge of the village. It was a mountain cabin, quite ordinary, except of course for the lush foliage growing just outside his front door, come rain or shine, snowy winter or burning summer, and except for the garden back behind his house with the trees that never dropped their leaves or lost their chittering squirrel residents to hibernation. Aside from these simple, reasonable differences accepted by the villagers as natural to his kind, there was rather nothing out of the ordinary to them about his cabin and his fireplace and his stacks of wood and his cheerful, wise, old face, remarkably free from wrinkles, and his white hair and his carved wooden cane and the general way he went about his business among the common folk.


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4 Responses to Myth, Legend, and Folktale

  1. Kirsten says:

    This is fascinating and so clearly laid out. I hadn't thought about how myths, legends and folktales fit into storytelling traditions, but your post makes this so easy to understand.
    Great work on this, and you have me really intrigued about your stories!

    • Liana Mir says:

      Glad this helps you! It was a bear to write, but it's been beating about my brain ever since Rabia asked for it.

      As for the stories affected by this: "Night Bride" and "Caller" are free to read and linked in this article. "The Great Cat and His Soul" will be going up... soon. "The Alchemist" is a part of Radiance, which includes The Alchemist, The Alcove, The Child, and The Singer. Most of my work reads much more like "The Singer," but I think most all of what I do is represented in that collection. If you'd like a free review copy, let me know, and I'll send you a coupon code. (I hereby absolve all recipients of any requirement to write a nice review, only an honest one, please.)

  2. Rabia says:

    I love this post!

    Question: Where do fairy tales fit into all this?

    • Liana Mir says:

      Fairytales are folktales, just some of them feature fairies, but plenty of them don't. If you read Grimm's, you'll find that quite a few of them have no fairies, but they are considered a part of the fairytale/folktale tradition.

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