Defining Terms: Myths, Folklore, Legends, and Fairy Tales


10 Aug, 2017

The terms myth, folklore, legend, and fairy tale are often used interchangeably, leading to the misconception that they mean the same thing: fanciful tales. While it's true that these terms may refer to bodies of writing that answer some of life's basic questions, each presents a unique reader experience. They've all stood the test of time, which speaks volumes about their ongoing hold on our imaginations.


A myth is a traditional story that may answer life's overarching questions, such as the origins of the world and/or of a people. A myth can also be an attempt to explain mysteries, supernatural events, and cultural traditions. Sometimes sacred in nature, a myth can involve gods or other creatures. And a myth represents reality in dramatic ways.

Many cultures have their own versions of common myths, which contain archetypal images and themes. Myth criticism is used to analyze these threads in literature. A prominent name in myth criticism is Northrop Frye.


Whereas myth has at its core the origins of a people and is often sacred, folklore is a collection of fictional tales about people and/or animals. Folktales describe how the main character copes with the events of everyday life, and the tale may involve crisis or conflict. Superstitions and unfounded beliefs are important elements in the folklore tradition.

The study of folklore is called folkloristics.


A legend is a story purported to be historical in nature but which is without substantiation. Prominent examples include King Arthur, Blackbeard and Robin Hood. Where evidence of the existence of actual historical figures exists, figures like King Richard are legends due in large part to the many stories that have been created about them.

Legend also refers to anything that inspires a body of stories, or anything of lasting importance or fame. The story is handed down from earlier times but will continue to evolve with time.

Fairy Tale

A fairy tale may involve fairies, giants, dragons, elves, goblins, dwarves, and other fanciful and fantastic forces. While traditionally intended for children, fairy tales have also moved into the field of literary theory. These stories have taken on lives of their own. In fact, many classic and contemporary books are based on fairy tales such as "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Snow White.