Here we share an excerpt from Chapter 4: Once Upon a Time: Story, Lore, and Legend.
I love studying folklore and legends. The stories that people passed down for a thousand years without any sort of marketing support are obviously saying something appealing about the basic human condition.
If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.
Diana Wynne Jones
What I find interesting about folklore is the dialogue it gives us with storytellers from centuries past.
We have always been story-tellers. From the dawn of humankind, we’ve been constructing ideas of who we are, how we got here, and what our purpose is, as well as attempting to describe, through creative and imaginative means, how the world around us just might work. Before science, there was story, and in a sense, science has always been embedded in stories throughout time, as well as knowledge, wisdom, and truth.
Once upon a time, we didn’t have the means to send a piece of information across the globe at lightning speed. We had to find other ways to convey what we were thinking. Around the fire perhaps we sat, speaking in whispered tones as we told tales and did our best to describe the world, as we knew it, even if we didn’t have a clue as to how to understand it. The reality around us was so vast, so bizarre, and so utterly incomprehensible, and we did not yet have the scientific savvy or acumen to understand any of it.
But we had words—and images. And we had stories.
Stories in Writing
Whether in the form of images on a wall of rock, or words to a breathless audience, or in writing, stories provided not just a form of entertainment to pass the time, but a way of expressing ideas and information via the vehicle of a three-act dramatic structure embellished with imaginative add-ons. The oldest stories may have been those out of ancient Mesopotamia, such as the epic tales of Gilgamesh etched into clay and carved onto stone pillars about 700 BC, changing from generation to generation and perhaps even becoming a part of future stories. Gilgamesh, according to Dr. Michael Lockett in The Basics of Storytelling, contained elements such as a garden and a flood, which may have later morphed into the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis.
Lockett also tells us that story-telling in written form was utilized by ancient Egyptians, in the form of the Westcar Papyrus. Possibly the sons of Cheops, the builder of the great Pyramid that bears his name, entertained their father with such stories of magic and heroism. The tales of Aesop, a slave who told stories and fables that survive to this day, although claimed by the Greek as having originated with them, may have instead come to us from some part of North Africa, set in writing about 300 BC–250 BC. “Storytelling has helped adults pass on wisdom, knowledge, and culture through the generations before they were finally printed in written form,” Lockett writes, citing the great epics of the Greek Homer from 1200 BC, that were not written down until 700 BC and became the Odyssey and the Iliad we know of today.
We discussed in Chapter 1 the importance of oral tradition as a means of passing on generational stories of individuals, families, events, and even what life was like for those who came before us. Oral history and tradition were eventually recorded not just in audio form, but later, when writing systems developed and evolved, as written text, to assure its continued preservation.
Eventually, some of those oral stories took on a folkloric element when these otherwise eyewitness accounts of real events and real people were reinterpreted on an ongoing basis, each time adding on new aspects of the original story until the end result contained only a grain of historical accuracy. Not all, but many of the oral stories our ancestors once told, became the stuff of legend and of lore by losing some of their historical perspective in favor of lavish and imaginative fantasy. Even values and religious rituals changed the historical nature of the original event, and often became more important than the event itself.
Parables and Fables
We also have so many parables, defined as a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle. Parables are not based upon historical events, but convey a deeper truth about how an individual or a group should behave. Using fiction to drive home a moral is something many parents know works well with small children, who seem to respond to the combination, just as we respond, perhaps subconsciously, to parables and to fables, which are entirely fictional and often magical or fantastical stories that are meant to convey a truth, a moral, or a specific theme.
The most famous fables of all are the talking animal stories of an ancient Greek slave who lived between 620 BC and 560 BC, and who may or may not have told hundreds of brief stories that were meant not just to entertain, but also to teach greater truths than actual, specific ones. These stories became known as “Aesop’s Fables” or the “Aesopica” credited to Aesop, although most modern scholars agree he did not create them all. These fables all had a specific formula: They were short fictitious, were useful to life, contained talking creatures and plants that were often given human qualities, and featured very little human to human interactions. They usually began with an introduction, followed by the story, and ended with a moral. Some had political meanings, some were values-oriented, and some were based on existing proverbs. To this day, Aesop’s Fables are being retold and reinterpreted.
Fables are found in every culture and every country, and originally were used as training exercises for prose and public speaking competitions in ancient Greek and Roman education systems. More modern fables include the popular children’s story “Bambi,” written in 1923 by Felix Salten and later Disney-fied into the classic animated motion picture, and even George Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm, the 1945 classic that used animals to tell a story of Stalinist Communism and totalitarianism.
Marchen Und Sagen
Marchen Und Sagen
The term is used by folklorists to describe the two main categories of oral tales, and could also apply to written tales as well. Märchen can be translated into English as “fairy tale” or “little stories” that are not intended as truth and often occur in entirely fantastical settings with utterly magical and sometimes supernatural elements like trolls, fairies, and poison apples. Sagen describes what we would call legends, which are stories of a particular event that occurred at a particular time and place, and may or may not include embellishments such as supernatural interferences or magical elements.
As with myth and religion, story-telling used specific themes as a foundation for representing a particular universal truth, even an archetypal or a psychological one. Many of the same themes present in myth, which includes the hero’s journey, made their way into historical narratives and became the stuff of “sagen,” or legends.
No matter what form story-telling took on, the purpose was to pass on information, because even the most imagination-based fiction has seeds of truth that can help us, thousands of years later, identify key characteristics of a culture and their way of life. Legends are often described as stories of historical events that are not meant to be symbolic narrative, as some other forms of story-telling, such as myths, are. Legends specifically are often based upon core truths that are embellished upon over time, such as the King Arthur tales or the stories of Robin Hood, Paul Bunyon, Lady Godiva, Romulus and Remus, and others—eventually becoming more “fictionalized” over time and therefore losing some of their weight as actual legend. The Brothers Grimm (whom we will talk more about) describe legends as “historically grounded folktales” and modern folklorists recognize them as historical narratives that contain folk beliefs and experiences indigenous to the culture telling them, and filled with the symbolism and traditional values of that culture. It is that specific cultural spin that makes legends so hard to dissect when looking for solid factual information, yet legends may indeed be telling us about important events that actually transpired.
The word legend itself comes from the Old French legende, from the Medieval Latin legenda, meaning a narrative of an event. A legend can be about a person, as described previously; or a place, such as Atlantis or Shangri-La; or even a creature, such as Nessie the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. Even an inanimate object can become a legend. Think the Holy Grail, the fountain of youth, the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Emerald Tablets. The original use of the word implied a fictional content, but over time, people began to adopt the term as a literary narrative of a possibly historical event, much in the way folk tales became.
The problem with looking for truth in legend is the passage of time, as well as the interpretive assaults by generations of story-tellers who add their own touches to the original tale, just as we today embellish actual stories of events that have occurred in our own lives. (Come on. Was that first kiss in kindergarten really that amazing that you saw stars and unicorns dancing in the air? Or is it just more fun to remember it that way?)
The Anatomy of a Legend
One of the most popular and enduring legends of all time is that of a man who led his country into battle against the evil Saxons and led the Knights of the Round Table on the quest for the Holy Grail: King Arthur. The legend of the Arthurian king has gone through so many changes and transformations over time, but there was an origin point, and it may have been a real king that started it all, or at least a real historical figure involved in the Saxon invasion. The story goes that Arthur was a British leader who led his country against Saxon invaders in the early part of the sixth century. Arthur was also the head of a group of very special knights that made up the Round Table, including the almost equally legendary Sir Percival and Sir Lancelot, in the quest to find the cup of Christ, the Holy Grail—which is also a legend, because some say it was the cup that Christ’s blood spilled into when he was pierced with a spear while on the cross, and others say it is the chalice used at the Last Supper. Arthur was married to the stunning Queen Guinevere, also a legend in her own right, as was her torrid and forbidden romance with Lancelot. Guiding Arthur in his legendary 12 battles and his more spiritual quests was another legend, Merlin the Magician. Arthurian legend also includes a magical sword called Excalibur, and an equally magical and legendary burial place for this king at an island called Avalon. Oh, and then there’s Mordred, the legendary son of Arthur and his own half-sister, the evil Morganna. Mordred is said to have mortally wounded his own father in the final Battle of Camlann.
Interestingly, most of that story angle was added on by 12th-century-AD French poet and writer Chrétien de Troyes, who created many of these elements by adding characters and events that ultimately created the genre of Arthurian and chivalric romance of medieval literature, which was a form of poem or verse narrative that spoke of adventures of knights and heroes on a quest, intended for aristocratic audiences. But before he got hold of the story, Geoffrey of Monmouth had already created his own Arthur angle in his 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) . There were also already in existence some Welsh and Breton epic poems and stories that spoke of Arthur, a great warrior defending Britain from both human and supernatural enemies.
And before that, there were many mentions of a celebrated Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Saxons and may indeed have engaged in 12 battles, culminating in the legendary Battle at Mount Badon, during which Arthur is said to have killed more than 900 men singlehandedly.
While scholars and historians continue to argue over whether Arthur actually was a king who led his men into battle and his knights into chivalrous adventures, or maybe a Celtic folk deity, or even a re-telling of the Christ myth, complete with 12 “disciples,” or just a really amazing warrior who fought like hell and had stories told about him, the story continues to engage modern audiences today in the forms of movies, TV shows, novels, and non-fiction books that attempt to answer the question: Who was King Arthur?
Many legends follow this trajectory of beginning with a seed that may have historical accuracy, but is then planted and then pulled up and replanted over and over again until the final fruit results in a completely reinterpreted telling of what was once a true story. We, the present generation, are left with the task of finding the fact within the fiction.
The role legends played in providing cultural and historical information about a specific person, thing or event continues to this day, even with our more fantastical and often viral urban legends.
Marie D. Jones and Larry Flaxman are the best-selling authors of The Time Prompt Phenomenon; The Trinity Secret; This Book is From the Future; and The Déjà vu Enigma. They are also screenwriters, researchers, and popular public speakers who have been interviewed on television and radio shows all over the world, including the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and Coast to Coast AM Radio. They are currently staff writers for Intrepid Magazine, and regular contributors to TAPS ParaMagazine, and New Dawn Magazine. They can be reached at www.paraexplorers.com.