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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Folklore in Legend

 The 1985 movie Legend is often classified as a dark fantasy but it contains many themes from older folklore. So today lets look at some of the folklore we find in the film and how it is incorporated into the story. 

1551 woodcutting of a unicorn

Spoilers ahead:

For those unfamiliar the movie tells the story of Jack, a young man who lives in the forest, and Lili, a princess and friend of Jack, as they work to stop the Lord of Darkness from casting the world into an endless winter night. It begins when Darkness sends two goblins into the wood to kill the unicorns; the goblins decide to follow Lili as she goes to visit Jack and so follow the two as Jack takes her to see the unicorns for the first time. Because the unicorns are drawn to Lili's innocence they stand still long enough for one of the goblins to shoot the stallion with a poison dart, and later chase him down and cut his horn off. Jack is angry at the unicorns being frightened off, not being aware of the goblins, but Lili ignores it instead taking off her ring and throwing it into a pond while declaring she will marry whoever recovers it. Jack, in love with Lili, dives in after it only to be trapped as the lake freezes over when the unicorn is killed. He manages to escape but Lili has already fled; she runs across the two goblins and overhears them admitting they killed the unicorn because of her. She then follows them back to Darkness who is angry that both unicorns weren't killed. Meanwhile Jack has allied himself with an elf, fairy, and two dwarves who have found the mare and realized they must retrieve the stolen horn in order to revive the stallion and save the daylight from Darkness. 

Now, on to the folklore. As one might guess from the above synopsis there is a great deal of folklore woven throughout the film which blends Christian symbolism with western European fairylore. I will be focusing on the latter here and instead of looking at incidents as they occur throughout the film will instead be discussing various characters and plot points. 

  • The unicorns are presented in a way that largely aligns with wider folklore: they are rare and hard to find, are attracted to innocence and purity, and their horns are magical in nature. The unicorns in Legend, of course, are white horses with horns, while the unicorns of folklore are generally described as more goat or deerlike than horselike. Similarly folkloric unicorns of earlier periods were not depicted as particularly gentle creatures.
  • The goblins of Legend are a bit of a mixed bag folklore-wise. They adhere to older ideas of goblins as generally dangerous and possibly malicious, but as with much media from this period they are shown to be more bumbling and comedic than actually dangerous. In a particularly odd twist that adds a moral layer to an already moral tale one of the goblins is later revealed as a fairy who has lost his way, implying perhaps that goblins in this world are corrupted fairies which is certainly a unique idea not found in older material.  
  • The elf, Honeythorn Gump, appears as a youth with pointed ears but speaks as wise adult. Given the wide range of folklore about elves to be found across the centuries and various cultures this depiction fits in to folklore at least broadly, although it does lean into the more twee end of things. Gump acts as a guide and mentor to Jack throughout the movie.
  • The fairy, Oona, is an interesting character who is initially presented as a flying ball of light but later reveals that she has the ability to shapeshift into a human-sized being (albeit still with wings). Oona's early appearance is very much inline with 20th century fairylore, particularly drawn from the stage productions of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell was literally just a light effect. Her later appearance is still inline with that imagery but her behaviour and ability to change shape and size reflect older folklore. She is an ally to Jack but is somewhat mercurial and seems to have her own agenda as well. 
  • The dwarves are less aligned with folklore and more with late 20th century popular culture, being shown (as the goblins are) as bumbling and rather goofy. They may represent the furthest characters from older folklore of any in the film although they are rather inline with the disney concept. 
  • At one point Jack and his friends must cross a swamp and encounter a dangerous being named Meg Mucklebones. Meg is a fairly standard folkloric hag, a being who lurks in swamps, rivers, and lakes, and who will drown and eat humans - examples from folklore would include Black Annis and Jenny Greenteeth. Meg does threaten to eat Jack but is killed by him instead. 
  • The group also encounters trolls after being captured and these beings are what might be described as extreme version of the folkloric concepts - hideous, grotesque, animalistic, violent. Troll folklore is another type of material that can vary widely so the trolls of Legend aren't entirely outside older material but certainly seem to be a lot more concentrated versions than what is found in older stories. 
Ultimately Legend is a fascinating film that blends older folklore, newer folklore, popculture ideas about fairies, and a morality tale into a cohesive whole that is unique. It should, perhaps, be understood within its own context or as a good example of late 20th century fairylore distilled through the lens of hollywood. 

1 comment:

  1. Quick question: what is the Queen of the Wind's name? Is She Nicnevin?