The word legend has a very interesting history, which sheds light not only on its origin but on early habits of thought and customs. It is derived from the Latin verb legere, which means “to read.” As legends are stories believed to be historical that are passed down by word of mouth and are not reduced to writing until they have been known (sometimes for centuries) by great numbers of people, it seems difficult at first glance to see any connection between the Latin word and its English descendant. In many countries, when large populations live remote from cities and were practically without books and newspapers, countless stories were told by peasant mothers to their children, by reciters or semi-professional story-tellers, which have since been put into print. For a good many hundred years, probably, the vast majority of legends were not read; they were heard.
When we understand, however, what the habits of people were in the early centuries and what the early legends were about, the original meaning of the word is not only clear but throws light on the history of this fascinating form of literature. The early legends, as a rule, had to do with religious people or with places which had religious associations; they were largely concerned with the saints and heroes. They were freely used in religious institutions for the instruction of the people. The first legends in countries where Christianity was practiced highlighted incidents from the lives of the saints and they were included in the selections made from various writings for public worship; these selections were called legends. The history of the word makes clear, therefore, the origin and early history of the class of stories which we call legends.
The use of the stories at church services led to the collection, orderly arrangement and reshaping of a great mass of material which grew rapidly because so many people were interested in these semi-religious tales. In the beginning the stories had, as a rule, some basis in fact, though it was often very slight. As time went on the element of fact grew smaller and the element of fiction larger; stories which were originally very short were expanded into long tales and became highly imaginative. In the Thirteenth Century the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, which became one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages, appeared. In time, as the taste for this kind of writing grew, the word legend came to include any story which, under a historical form, gave an account of an historical or imaginary person.
During the Middle Ages verse-making was very popular and very widely practiced; for versification is very easy when people are in the habit of using it freely, and a verse is much more easily remembered than a line of prose. For many generations legends were versified. It must be remembered that verse and poetry are often very far apart; and poetry is as difficult to compose as verse is easy. The versified legends were very rarely poetic; they were simply narratives in verse. Occasionally men of poetic genius took hold of these old stories and gave them beautiful forms as did the German poet Hartmann von Aue in “Der Arme Heinrich.” With the tremendous agitation which found expression in the Reformation, interest in legends died out, and was not renewed until the Eighteenth Century, when men and women, grown weary of artificial and mechanical forms of literature, turned again to the old stories and songs which were the creation of less self-conscious ages. With the revival of interest in ballads, folk-stories, fairy stories and myths came a revival of interest in legends.
The myths were highly imaginative and poetic explanations of the world and of the life of man in it at a time when scientific knowledge and habits of thought had not come into existence. The fairy story was “a free poetic dealing with realities in accordance with the law of mental growth, … a poetic wording of the facts of life, … an endeavor to shape the facts of the world to meet the needs of the imagination, the cravings of the heart.” The legend, dealing originally with incidents in the lives of the heroes, saints and with places made sacred by association with holy men, has, as a rule, some slight historical basis; is cast in narrative form and told as a record of fact; and, in cases where it is entirely imaginative, deals with some popular type of character like Robin Hood or Rip Van Winkle; or with some mysterious or tragic event, as Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” are poetic renderings of part of a great mass of legends which grew up about a little group of imaginary or semi-historical characters; Longfellow’s “Golden Legend” is a modern rendering of a very old mediaeval tale; Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is an example of purely imaginative prose, and Heine’s “Lorelei” of a purely imaginative poetic legend.
The legend is not so sharply defined as the myth and the fairy story, and it is not always possible to separate it from these old forms of stories; but it always concerns itself with one or more characters; it assumes to be historical; it is almost always old and haunts some locality like a ghost; and it has a large admixture of fiction, even where it is not wholly fictitious. Like the myth and fairy story it throws light on the mind and character of the age that produced it; it is part of the history of the unfolding of the human mind in the world; and, above all, it is interesting.
Citation: Mabie, Hamilton Wright, ed. Legends That Every Child Should Know. NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., for The Parents’ Institute, Inc., 1906. This story is in the public domain and is part of the cited work.