Marie Brennan: Folktales and Legends

I’ve reviewed a number of Marie Brennan’s (Twitter, LJ) books, including her Onyx Court series (gorgeous historical fairy fantasy set in London). Her next book, A Natural History of Dragons [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], is currently sitting on my TBR pile, because I’m luckier than you are. I’ve been rushing to prepare all of these guest posts, and my brain is getting fuzzy, so I’ll just conclude by saying Marie invented the left parenthese, is a third degree black-belt in a rare style of piccolo-based karate, and is composed of 62% dark matter.


Hello again, everyone! Did you miss me? (Don’t answer that.)

Last time I guest-blogged for Jim, on the topic of fairy tales and how they make no sense, I made a passing comment about how modern fantasy is more often like the folklore category of “legends” than it is like the Brothers Grimm. Several people expressed interest in hearing me expand on that thought, so here I am, back for a second round.

When I talk about the aesthetic qualities that distinguish folktales from legends — and let me digress briefly to say that I’ll be talking about “folktales” rather than “fairy tales” because most things in that category don’t actually have fairies in them — I’m mostly drawing on an influential book by Max Lüthi called The European Folktale: Form and Nature. As the title gives away, it focuses on European sources; what folktales are like in other regions of the world, and whether or not it makes sense to have a general category of “folktale” that you apply to all cultures, are questions that could fill not only a blog post but an entire grad school course. But since modern fantasy rests firmly on a foundation of European material, and is still only gradually opening up to other paradigms, his work is a good place to start.

I’m going to cheat here and quote myself directly, from a paper I presented at a conference and later turned into an article for Strange Horizons: “Lüthi gives a number of descriptors for the folktale style, including one-dimensionality, depthlessness, abstract style, isolation and universal interconnection, sublimation and all-inclusiveness.” You can go read that article if you want further explication of the latter points (I use them to analyze Meredith Ann Pierce’s novel The Darkangel, which is much more folktale-ish than most fantasy these days), but the main thing I want to unpack here is what Lüthi calls “one-dimensionality.”

In a folktale, things take place in “a land far, far away” — a land that is, furthermore, usually nameless. By contrast, in a legend the action often occurs in a named location, and one that is known. It isn’t just “the dark forest;” it’s that forest on the other side of the river from the village where the tale is being told. Legends are frequently bound into the landscape of the teller: this hill, that rock, the lone oak tree where your horse threw you last week. They’re about the world the audience lives in, and they are concrete.

The flip side of this, and the other component of what Lüthi means by “one-dimensionality,” is that in a folktale, while things may be physically distant, they’re spiritually close. In fact, physical distance replaces spiritual distance. A folktale hero, wandering along in his journey, comes to the foot of a glass mountain. How much time does he spend goggling at the sight? None at all. The same goes for talking lions, huts on chicken legs, and walnuts with whole dresses crammed inside of them. Weird things aren’t weird, in folktales. Nor are they scary. They just are, and the hero doesn’t bat an eyelash at them.

Legends? Are scary. And weird. And the characters in them react appropriately. If a guy comes riding along with his severed head under his arm, the hero not only bats an eyelash, but runs for the hills. Things in legends are physically close, but spiritually distant.

By now you can probably see where I’m going with this. Sure, fantasy novels of the non-urban or non-historical sort don’t take place in our backyards (and even some of the urban ones take place in Generic City #12) — but their locations are specific. In fact, our genre prides itself on its ability to make up worlds that feel real, complete with place-names and maps and histories and politics and all the rest of it. Even when we’re rewriting folktale plots, our settings are rarely vague, nameless kingdoms. And when our characters encounter weird stuff? We not only want them to marvel, we criticize the author for bad writing if they don’t. There are types of fantasy that shoot for a different target — especially in short stories, where it’s easier to sustain an artistic “folktale” style; keeping it up for the length of a novel is hard — but as a publishing category, fantasy is dominated by works that mimic the qualities of legends.

Mind you, we still do steal a few of our tricks from folktales. Lüthi argues that one of the characteristics of the style is that objects in it often default to precious metals and minerals, and a limited range of color. Gold and silver, black and white and red and sometimes blue . . . we use green more than folktales do, for which we can probably thank Tolkien and his trees, but it’s true that lots of things fall into that narrow range of shades. And we certainly do love extremes, where our protagonists are orphans or youngest children, royalty or peasants, but rarely middle children or middle-class. We’ve changed that some in recent years, but read through The European Folktale and you’ll see a few trends you might recognize.

Ultimately, of course, modern fantasy is its own thing, neither fish nor fowl, neither folktale nor legend. We’ve stolen tropes from myths and chivalric romances and a bunch of other genres both literary and oral. But if I had to pick one to say is the closest match, I’d probably pick legends.