- In folklore theory, a 'legend' is a short traditional oral narrative about a person, place, or object that really exists, existed, or is believed to have existed; even when it recounts a supernatural or highly unusual event, this is claimed to have occurred in real life. Unlike a 'fairytale or joke, it is presented (and generally accepted) as true; it offers information, moral judgements, or warnings which reflect the preoccupations of the hearers. In practice, the status of legends is more complex, both as regards orality and perceived truthfulness. Many which were once purely oral have repeatedly appeared in books, local newspapers, and TV, from where they feed back into oral tellings; some are commercially exploited (e.g. by 'tourist guides) but not believed; in some cases, the truth of the tradition is a matter for heated dispute (e.g. 'Robin Hood, Lady 'Godiva), while in others what was once regarded as true and important is now mere entertainment.Legends are extremely common in English folklore, and indeed throughout Europe. Various classifications have been proposed, some based on content, some on function, and some on range of dissemination. Legends about past heroes were the first type to be identified. Many, such as those about King Alfred burning the cakes and King Canute defying the tide, are plausible, and very widely known; others have supernatural content, but are told of real people, such as 'St Dunstan or 'Drake; in others, the historical identity of the hero has vanished under legendary motifs, and rediscovering it becomes a contentious issue, as with attempts to identify the 'real' Arthur or Robin Hood. The categories of 'historical' and 'local' legend are not mutually exclusive, since there are tales about national figures such as 'Cromwell which are only locally known, while others relate to people only important in local history.' Local legends are found throughout England, and are extremely varied, the one common factor being their association with landmarks or buildings in the locality; yet, far from being unique to one place, they generally fit story-patterns known elsewhere in England or abroad, thus being 'migratory as well as local. As regards claims to credibility, they range from amusing fantasies, through stories such as those about 'treasures and 'tunnels which may (or may not) contain the proverbial 'grain of truth', to religious and supernatural tales embodying firm beliefs and moral principles. Where the belief is actively held, personal experience stories ('memorates) often develop alongside the supernatural legend, and reinforce it; in present-day England this often occurs as regards haunted sites.Another major category is the 'contemporary legend; this type is notorious for its rapid international diffusion, yet each individual telling presents itself as a local story; some tellers, obviously, must be hoaxing their hearers, while others are saying what they honestly believe.■ Briggs 1970-1 B, and Westwood 1985 contain numerous examples.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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