Drilling down further, we have fairy tales. As these are stories, all fairy tales are essentially myths, though fairy tales appeal to a broader culture instead of a highly-specific one. Fairy tales have been stripped of their specific place and character names to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
Urban legends share a lot in common with fairy tales, though they can reclaim some of the specificity with actual names to be more mythic. The urban part is more of a reference to to the time period. These are modern-day stories. The terms urban legend and urban myth differentiate these stories from ancient cultures, and show that the ancients are not the only ones with culturally relevant stories.
What separates fairy tales and legends? Well, time, mostly. And I don’t mean simply that it has to be old. It must withstand the test of time. Fairy tales began as stories from the Middle Ages that were collected by the Grimms, Perrault, Andersen, and others. So they have lasted, and remained culturally significant, for hundreds of years. Will the same be said of the urban legends that are passed around? Yes, they will remain in existence, thanks to the internet and the ease of publishing, but just because they exist does not make them relevant. Will they have an effect in shaping a culture? I don’t know, and many folklorists are studying urban legends to better understand their cultural effects.
What about folklore and history? If it’s true, does that mean it’s not folklore? Those who study folklore don’t care whether or not the stories are true. It’s only about whether the knowledge is part of the culture. It’s obvious that the gigantic Paul Bunyan is not true—original stories about a lumberjack are more reasonable, but unverifiable—but the story does speak to American culture. Ben Franklin and his kite is true, but that doesn’t diminish the Paul Bunyan story. A story that is true will likely have more staying power; that is, it will remain more culturally significant for longer than a story that is not true.
Cultures and traditions shift to accommodate. They are not static, so it’s quite possible that, over time, Paul Bunyan is written out of the folklore simply because it will no longer be culturally significant. But historical truth is not the only factor, nor is it the most important. Paul Bunyan is in danger of being written out more because we no longer have a lumberjack culture. Steel, concrete, plastics, liquid crystal displays, and other synthetics have captured the place we had for wood and its products. So how relevant can Paul Bunyan be to people who live in brick and concrete buildings reading this on their tablet computers?
Hopefully, I’ve demystified some of the terminology, and put it into a greater context for everyone. I plan on doing a few more posts like this one to talk about how to research and find sources of folklore (another common question from Comicon) as well as discuss some meta aspects of folklore and culture, but not yet. Time to get back to some actual myths.