The Difference Between Myths, Legends, and Fairy Tales

By Charles Perrault, Harry Clarke (ill.)

Myths, legends, fairy tales—we know them well, the stories we pass down from generation to generation. Add in folktales and fables, and you have yourself a plethora of names for the sort of stories people often lump under the same category.

Yet each of these represents a story with its own distinct characteristics. The terms are not interchangeable.

Editors and readers have certain expectations associated with different genres, and you’ll want to play into those.

Myths

Myths explain the reasons why things have come to be—why our world looks and feels and works the way it does. Think creation myths. These provide a worldview, telling the reader how it is that a certain practice, belief, or natural event came about. How the world itself came about.

Gods and goddesses, in all their various shapes and traditions and cultures, fall under this category. We are living in the mud on Big Turtle’s back. The Fates are spinning their thread, doling out misery and suffering. He said “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Myths are old, ancient things, generally speaking.

They inspire legends.

Legends

Legends are based on historical events, but unlike mythologies, the origin of legends can generally be traced to a much more recent past.

Legends are an enchanting blend of real events and fantastical elements we associate more often with fiction. We can’t prove they’re real, but we want to believe in them nonetheless. They represent adventure and mystery. Think the legend of The Lost City of Atlantis, The Holy Grail, or King Arthur.

These are stories we all know, but legends also exist on smaller, more regional, scales as well—the legend of Bigfoot or the Jersey Devil, for instance. These regional, or contemporary, legends can more aptly be called “urban legends.”

People have searched for these creatures, objects, and places physical locations throughout this world. In some cases, they have claimed to find them. Or, at the very least, the ruins of them. Out of every type of story on this list, legends are arguably the most concrete and real. They have the most potential to inspire or terrify us.

Fairy Tales

I know plenty of adults who enjoy a good fairy tale, but by and large, these stories have always been created with children in mind. They include fantastical and often magical beings. Fairies, witches, trolls, and the like. The list is endless. They are set in far away kingdoms and dark forests—in a time long ago, yes, but also somehow outside of time altogether.

The Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, are responsible for recording many of the fairy tales we still know and love today. In the process, they wrote and built upon German folktales. Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales includes classics like Rapunzel, Little Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, and many more.

The Grimm brothers’ collection is often filled with a darker sort of fairy tale than today’s children are used to. Yet for the most part, fairy tales, filled with the unlikely and the improbable, rarely ever end on anything but a happy note.

Fables

Fables include talking animals, plants, or inanimate objects. They are entirely fictional and don’t pretend to be otherwise, and yet, they serve to enforce certain truths about life—to teach children lessons and morals.

Through The Tortoise and the Hare we learn that slow and steady can win the race, especially when your competitor is smug and easily distracted. King Midas and His Golden Touch reminds readers of the folly in believing money can buy happiness.

Parables

Technically, in the strictest sense of the term, King Midas isn’t a fable at all since a human appears in the story. Instead it’s called a “parable,” which often take on religious or spiritual overtones, but despite their various subjects, the goal of parables and fables remains the same: to teach children important lessons about life.

Folktales

A folktale isn’t a folktale unless it’s being told orally. These stories have been passed around for so long they have no known author. They are specific to certain cultures, though if you read enough you will notice the similarities.

Today, in a world where stories are told orally far more infrequently than they were when our ancestors gathered around their great fires, the term “folktale” has become a vague catch-all. A fairy tale can be a folktale and often started out as one, the Grimm brothers recording for all those German tales they grew up listening to. Myths and legends can also be folktales, and again, often began as such, until someone saw fit to write them down.

Folktales are part of the larger and all encompassing “folklore,” which represents all the stories, beliefs, and superstitions that embody a specific culture. The stories that shape us. That stories we cling to.

The same stories that inevitably influence our own writing and the perspectives of our would-be readers. While knowing that these terms aren’t interchangeable probably (most certainly) won’t earn you any “cool” points, as a writer, understanding the distinctions between each type of tale is important.

Myths, legends, fairy tales, fables, parables, and folktales—are there any other terms you’d add to this list?

Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

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