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The Difference between Fairytales, Folktales, Myths, and Legends

Updated on July 31, 2014
Scott Gustafson, Happily Ever After
Scott Gustafson, Happily Ever After

Ever wondered the difference between fairytales and folktales? The two words seem basically interchangeable, right? The same with myths and legends. While it is true that all these words refer, at their most basic level, to stories going back centuries, they each represent a unique genre of tales.

Fairy Tales

Remember the bedtime stories your parents would tell you as a child? Remember the thrilling tales of Jack and the Giant and Beauty and the Beast? Or perhaps you recall the Disney movies of Snow White and Cinderella better? These are all fairy tales: stories involving fantastical creatures, usually created for the entertainment of children. Fairy tales are usually short, fanciful stories that generate an escape from reality into a magical world of dragons, fairies, witches, goblins, elves, and other magical creatures.

Folktales/Folklore

Whereas fairy tales are elaborate tales based on magic and the world of mystical beings, folktales relate to everyday life, showcasing both humans and animals as their heroes.

You’ve probably heard of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack who is always accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox. The stories of Paul’s adventures are famous in American folklore, having been passed down orally by North American loggers and later popularized in the late 1800s by freelance author, William B. Laughead.

Folklore is often used synonymously with folktales, though folklore does not necessarily have to be stories. Folklore refers to the culture of a people, it includes their stories, but also beliefs, practices, crafts, and legends that are handed down from generation to generation.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

Fables

Fables are similar to folktales in that they usually tell of everyday life and use animals, and sometimes humans, as their protagonists. However, while folktales are stories created for entertainment, fables are written to convey a moral, to teach children lessons of life. Aesop, an ancient Greek storyteller, created a variety of fables we still tell today. Ever hear of the Tortoise and the Hare?

Legends

Unlike fairy tales and fables, legends are based on facts and claim to be historical in nature. They often include characters that can be determined as people who actually existed, though the stories told in legends cannot be proved to have actually happened. Well known examples include: the legend of Robin Hood, Blackbeard the pirate, and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. While these people really existed, it is hard to tell if the stories told about them are true. Stories told though legends are handed down through generations orally, until written down and published. But, with time, the stories evolve, making it hard to distinguish what actually happened.

Myths

Myths are traditional stories told to describe why something happens. There are myths about the creation of the earth, myths to explain mysteries and superstitions, and myths about people. The most well-known myths are those told in ancient Greece and Rome. Myths are often considered sacred and involve gods and other creatures as both heroes and antagonists.

Greek myth: Gaea, aka Mother Earth, creating the world
Greek myth: Gaea, aka Mother Earth, creating the world

© 2014 Sckylar Gibby-Brown

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    • profile image

      Allen 

      9 months ago

      Nah, the most well-known myths are the ones told in the bible. More people know about those than Greek myths these days.

    • Deborah Minter profile image

      Deborah Minter 

      9 months ago from U.S, California

      Good article! Similar meanings, yet each are in it's own category.

    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 

      19 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Good thing to know. Concise way of categorizing them. Thanks

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Nice hub! You did a good job of defining each of these types of tales. It is good to know the definitions of each one of these. They are, however, so close in nature it is easy to confuse them.

    • S R Gibby-Brown profile imageAUTHOR

      Sckylar Gibby-Brown 

      4 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      That's awesome! Glad I could help clarify.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Very good! I have wondered about these distinctions. I took an interest in folklore etc when I first got interested in folk music many years ago.

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