Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Events or stories which have grown to mythic proportions. Legends are closely associated with Folktales, but usually on a heroic scale, as with Robin Hood. A collection of legends related to a culture's foundations and Hero figures becomes a Mythology. Legends generally are not born of nothing – there is usually some historical basis – but embellishment transforms them into a form of Myth. (Urban Legends may be quite another kettle of fish.) They provide many of the Taproot Texts for fantastic fiction and frequently offer Underliers. The most significant usage in Genre Fantasy concerns those derived from Celtic legend (see Celtic Fantasy) – which include the many legends of Arthur – Nordic and Teutonic legends (see Nordic Fantasy; Saga), and Greek, Roman, Chinese and Japanese legends. Legends found their ways into the medieval sagas and Romances and through them were picked up by William Morris and developed into modern Adult Fantasy. Legends contribute most heavily to Heroic Fantasy.

Legends have also given us many Lost Lands and Continents. Best-known is Atlantis, but others include Hyperborea, Lemuria and Mu, settings used diversely by Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Lin Carter.

Legends are such a backbone of a culture's belief that they are also essential to any Secondary World. This was recognized by J R R Tolkien, who created an entire mythology for Middle-Earth. No other author has repeated this to such an extent, although writers from E R Eddison through Michael Moorcock and Terry Pratchett to Roger Zelazny have used the power of legend to support the worlds they have created. [MA]

further reading: The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends of All Nations (1962) ed Barbara Leonie Picard.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.