Tale or Legend?

July 30th 2019, by Gabriel

Do you know how to tell the difference between a tale and a legend? The question is not so innocuous because many of us mix them up. And yet, they are almost opposites!

Illustration from Perrault's Tales, Bluebeard by Gustave Doré

The tale

The tale is a story that takes us to imaginary places and whose temporal setting is the vaguest (« once upon a time », « a long time ago », « a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… », etc…). Also, the narrative is in the third person. The space-time setting is often fantastic, but remains imprecise. This allows for a seduction of imagination : fairy tales, wonderful lands, elves, genies, terrifying landscapes, ogres, witches, scary stories, imaginary landscapes…

In a tale, there are two types of characters : good guys who only have qualities and bad guys who only have flaws. The author often intends to pass a message to the reader : the moral. This is one of the important characteristics of this type of story : there is almost always a moral, be it implicit or explicit. The tale comes from an oral tradition. It is only near the end of the Middle Age that some tales get to be kept in writing. It becomes a literary genre only from the 18th century onwards.


The Legend

A legend is a story that gets its inspiration in a real historical fact and embellishes what is real, contrary to the tale which is not associated to something concrete and in which everything is imagined. There is always a more or less precise space-time setting, once again something in opposition to the tale. Even though legends include wonderful elements, they take place in an existing location or one that may have existed.

The legend, from latin « legenda », « which must be read », applied only in its first meaning to the cautionary tales about the life of saints and martyrs. These texts were read during religious services and in the convents. The meaning of the term evolved little by little and we came to call legends all the wonderful stories of a past event, whatever the folklore they were based on may be. Surprisingly enough given its religious origins, it does not necessarily have a moral, it even is quite the opposite. Nowadays, they are rather wonderful stories about a past event, based on a more or less authentic tradition.


Envie d’en entendre quelques un(e)s ?

If you speak French, you can check « L’Alsace Eternelle », a book by Jean Variot, which I own in a very beautiful but unfortunately quite damaged edition from 1929. Many tales and legends have their roots in our beautiful alsatian region, around Strasbourg, Colmar, Obernai, Ribeauvillé, and other iconic locations!
A much more recent book with an explicit title : « Contes et légendes de Strasbourg », from Claude Peitz, who provided us with many other books on the region’s tales and legends.

Also, don’t forget to come and listen to some of them in person during one of our guided tours of course!

And finally, a must-see : “Les Contes de Perrault” illustrated by Gustave Doré, even if you don’t speak French, these images don’t need words 😉

Illustration from Perrault's Tales, The Little Red Riding Hood by Gustave Doré