In A Nutshell
Legends, myths, and fairy tales are all various types of folklore, most of which have been passed down through generations. Legends are usually based on some sort of historical fact and have had their characters or events embellished over the tellings and retellings. Fairy tales generally have some sort of fantastic element, and might feature magic, imaginary creatures, and often a conflict between sides that are clearly good and evil. A myth has its basis in religion, often telling stories of supernatural beings or creators, and usually explaining some sort of natural phenomenon.
The Whole Bushel
All three types of stories have something of the fantastic and the unbelievable in them; the difference is in the content, where it comes from, and whether or not it has some sort of testable or historic basis.
A legend is a story that has some element of historical fact or accuracy. Legends are typically told about real people, places, or events from history, and then are embellished with the retelling. For example, the story of Johnny Appleseed is a legend. He was a real person, named John Chapman, who really did travel through many northern states planting apple orchards. The real facts of his life—such as that planting and owning orchards along the yet unclaimed frontier gave that owner land claims as well—were embellished into the legend of a selfless wanderer who planted apple trees simply for the sake of planting them. In the legend, Johnny Appleseed is a simple, barefoot farmer planting trees just because he feels like it. In reality, it’s true that he was known for not wearing shoes, but his apple trees also gave him claim to around 1,200 acres of land.
Tall tales can be similar to legends; in a tall tale, the exaggeration is so blatant there is often no question which parts of the story were based in truth and which parts have been completely made up. Legends are often told to seem as though the entire story is highly possible.
A myth is a story that can sometimes be rooted in historical fact, but more often deals with supernatural beings, gods, demigods, and the explanation of natural phenomenon. Stories that explain religious beliefs are often myths; they explain the cultural and religious views of a society. Many of the Greek myths envelop all or most of these traditions. The stories of the Greek gods and heroes not only explain natural phenomena like the changing of the seasons, sunrise and sunset, and weather, but they also give insight into some of the things that were most important to the civilization as a whole. Many myths were, at one time or another, believed to be true, but one defining characteristic of a myth is that there is no way to verify the claims made within it.
A fairy tale is a story that has elements of the fantastic, whether it be magic or creatures like leprechauns and gnomes that we know don’t really exist, even though the stories themselves can sometimes be presented as historic fact. Many fairy tales have undergone an evolution; they have been toned down for more recent generations, losing much of the grim, bloody, and oftentimes downright disturbing aspects that they once had. Now, the tale of Cinderella rarely has the elements of self-mutilation that it once did, and modern retellings of Snow White lack the psychological depth, gory details, and even assassination attempts that can be found in the older versions of the story. Fairy tales often have a very clear-cut good vs. evil storyline.
A fable is a type of fairy tale that is attempting to teach a lesson in its telling. It often has the same fantastic elements, but most the important part is the meaning behind the story.