The most prominent theme of the novel involves Tom's lifelong struggle to find meaning, happiness, and peace in his life. While all human beings struggle with this search, Tom's position, as a Ute Native American and as a child whose parents have both died young, renders his path toward meaning particularly difficult. Tom must negotiate countless societal pressures as he leaves the wilderness and enters the civilized world. As a Ute Native American living in the beginning of the twentieth century, the new life he begins in Pagosa forces him to reconsider his entire value system as well as the details of his daily patterns. The next phase of his life, in which he becomes a wild bronco rider in the rodeo, does not provide the peace and sense of accomplishment he has expected. Despite his fame, success, and relatively comfortable existence, Tom finds himself continually dissatisfied, angry, and in search of greater meaning in his life. After years of struggling with fundamental questions about his identity, Tom finally comes to terms with himself when he accepts a job herding sheep in the same area in which he spent his childhood. By facing his fears and painful memories, he overcomes them and learns that an embrace of his heritage and a new, simple lifestyle in the wilderness can provide him with the most contentment he has felt since his childhood. Because this theme provides the novel's central conflict, the novel concludes as soon as his search for his identity concludes.
Linked to Tom's search for his own identity is his search for his true home. Bald Mountain and the surrounding wilderness provide Tom with a sense of home and of belonging during his childhood years. Even in the painful time following the death of his mother, Tom lives peacefully in the wilderness, befriending the animals with whom he shares the woods. However, when Blue Elk persuades him to leave the woods and enroll in the local reservation school, Tom first experiences the acute pain of displacement and will continue to experience it for most of his life, until he returns to the wilderness at the end of the novel. As Tom's teachers and bosses become increasingly frustrated with Tom's inability to complete certain tasks or with his passionate will to return to his old ways, they send him from place to place. As a result, Tom does not feel welcomed in by any environment or by any individual. When he begins his career as a bronco rider, this pattern only perpetuates itself, as his competition takes him to many cities across the country. He lives a life on the road, with no sense of attachment to place or people. While he hungers for the comfort and ease a sense of home provides, he know not how to seek it until his return to the mountains.
From his very first interactions with the townspeople of Pagosa upon his arrival at the reservation school, Tom reacts to authority figures with resentment, hostility, and distrust. However, his experiences with these authority figures justify his behavior toward them. They have deprived him of the lifestyle of his heritage and treat him with prejudice because of his status as a Native American. Tom also feels as though these authority figures continually attempt to control his life in various ways. They exploit his abilities for their own material gain or for their own sense of worth. Tom's resentment of authority becomes so pronounced, however, that it sometimes causes him to distance himself from people who may genuinely try to help him. For example, the nurse Mary Redmond, who appears later in the novel, strives to comfort and care for Tom. Because of his fear of her control over him, he automatically assumes she has selfish motives. Borland writes, "Then he remembered and the whole pattern fell into place. Blue Elk, Benny Grayback, Rowena Ellis, Red Dillon—they had trapped him, every one of them, had tried to run his life, make him do things their way. And now Mary Redmond."
Although the author has written this novel as a serious investigation into questions of identity and the position of Native Americans in our society, he has also used humor as a means of entertaining the reader and relieving us from the book's prevailing sense of despair. For example, Tom's first days at the reservation school demonstrate the differences between mainstream American culture and the old Ute ways. Although this contrast ultimately pains Tom and makes his transition to civilization difficult, it also provides moments of humor.
Among the traditions of the old Ute culture, songs and chants provide one of the most important rituals. Utes sing to express sadness or joy, to communicate with the animals and the natural world, and to connect with spiritual beings. The early part of the novel, in which Tom has not yet left the wilderness, contains many references to such songs. Tom learns these songs largely from his mother. Throughout the course of the novel, however, Tom forgets the melodies and the words to these songs, and this forgetfulness represents his abandonment and repression of his past. Despite Tom's best efforts to forget them forever, these songs return to him through his thoughts and his dreams. In this way Borland demonstrates the continually haunting presence of Tom's past to us.
The title of the novel, When the Legends Die, plays an important role in its themes and lessons and speaks to the dangers of forgetting one's heritage. When Tom distances himself from his Ute traditions, he loses his identity and becomes bitter and lonely. While the author addresses the universal need for people to embrace and remember their roots, he speaks more particularly to the situation of Native Americans in the United States. As government and private interests force them off their land, they become assimilated to the mainstream culture and often lose the positive aspects of their heritage.
The bear plays a significant role in the themes of the novel and in Tom's character development. His relationship with the bear at any given moment in the novel corresponds to the strength of his connection to his Ute heritage during that particular phase of his life. Early in the novel, after his father's death, Tom names himself "Bear's Brother" because of his feeling of connection to the bears in the wilderness. After his mother's death, a bear cub who has also lost his mother becomes his best friend. However, as Tom becomes a bronco rider he loses this connection, and it is only at the end of the novel that he interacts with bears once again. Borland also draws similarities between the situations of the bear and the boy. For example, when Tom and the bear stay in Pagosa, they both feel emotionally and physically imprisoned by the townspeople there.
During the climatic scene of the novel in which the All-Mother appears to Tom, colors play a significant symbolic role. White, blue, yellow, and black appear to dance in the sky before becoming men who perform the bear dance. White plays perhaps the most important symbolic role in this part of the novel. After the All-Mother claims Tom as his son in Chapter 48, Borland writes, "Then he wakened, and the white was all around him, the white light of truth and understanding." White represents the "All-Mother," as well as the spiritual life in general. The multiple scenes with the All-Mother and Tom's rebirth through the bathing ritual mark his growing spiritual maturity and his acceptance of the old ways.
Tom's character represents the Native American population in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Displaced from their homes in the wilderness, Native Americans must live in an unfamiliar, materialistic world. They must also endure continual abuse and exploitation from the white population. In a broader sense, Tom also represents all those who have lost or forgotten their heritage, as well as all those who have struggled to define their role in society.