Our society is obsessed with myths. We dig deep into those primal tales that define the limits of human nature in society after society, staring into the face of human greatness and frailty and seeking what precious lessons there are to offer. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s something that seems to be a necessary part of the human experience. Any attempt to expunge one set of myths seems to result in an entirely new set creeping in to replace them, so just as myths explore human nature, so also human nature needs myths to understand itself. This is right and good.
But legends. Legends are a kind of story of their own.
Where myths are about human nature, legends often tie back to the way cultures think they should be structured. Consider the legend of King Arthur – his position at the head of the Round Table perfectly embodied the feudal system in Europe. In reality feudal rulers relied on a sort of mutually assured destruction, where any rebellion by one feudal vassal would be quashed by the others in conjunction with the king. But the king was powerless against his retainers if they all chose to turn against him. In Arthurian lore the solidarity the lords maintain with one another and the king is a sign that these lords offer the king their loyalty and the kingdom is bound together by virtue – a noble idea and certainly something to aspire to. Perhaps made all the more precious by the fact that it was rarely the case.
There are, of course, legends more modern than these. Take the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree. Many people have heard how, after accidentally cutting down his father’s fruit tree and being confronted, Washington refused to lie and admitted to the transgression. It’s unlikely this story is true but it lives on as a testament to the moral fiber Americans would like to see in their leaders. Other legendary figures speak to the independence or work ethic, people like Johnny Appleseed and Davey Crockette, Paul Bunyan and John Henry loom in the public consciousness as embodiments of the sort of rough and tumble, single minded, courageous people Americans once wanted to embody their civilization. What’s interesting is how these legendary figures don’t have real counterparts in other cultures. Instead, other figures embody very different virtues.
In France legends revolve around thinkers like Voltaire or occasionally leaders like Napoleon, spinning tales of refined thought and action. Seafarers traveling far from home occupy the legendary halls of the British, keeping to their stations with grim determination in the worst of circumstances. In China it is the educated elites who walk the halls of legend, clashing against one another in a quest for enlightenment, embodying Confucian values of wisdom and filial piety or the conflicting values of Buddhism and its nihilistic enlightenment. And, while the semblance is imperfect, we can see these cultural values reflected in the cultures that gave birth to these legends.
Of course, the line between myth and legend is blurry. Arthur is both a mythic and legendary figure. Once and future kings are not unique to the West, for example, whereas his knights are very much legendary and not mythic figures that embody the virtues of chivalry and how they should relate back to a leader. The relationship between Merlin and Arthur is mythological – mentor and student go back to the Greeks and likely before. The love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere is legendary, showing the contest between the sides of love that can be fun but destructive and those that fulfill duty but sometimes feel dull, and painting their consequences across a national fabric.
The line between myth and legend is, in many ways, an artificial one. But classifying and naming kinds of stories is one of the ways that we break down and analyze why the work and why they do not. It’s a very important part of how human minds understand things and thus something that I, personally, find very important to look at when crafting stories. (Anyone here who still remembers when I had a running bit on the broad categories of stories called Genrely Speaking?) I began wondering about legends when I tried to pin down what count as the legends of our era and I realized I couldn’t think of any.
We have Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth to help inform our thinking about mythic stories and how they impact our consciousness. There isn’t any kind of system like that for legends, the stories that represent how we are now trying to reckon with the human nature myths describe. I find that disturbing, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not. This may be a sign of how unmoored our societal values have become from one another, or indicate some breakdown in culture. It could just be a consequence of mass communications disrupting our society and speeding the creation and replacement of cultural touchstones to absurd degrees. It could be that we just can’t see these things from our current place in the culture. It’s hard to tell. But it’s a problem worth a story or two all on its own, don’t you think?