Friday, May 8, 2015

A History of the Term: "Grateful Dead" in Folklore Scholarship

It's my birthday. It's Friday. Do we care about The Grateful Dead Tales From Around the World (SurLaLune Fairy Tale Series) today? Well, yes, I do so I am offering a longer post and then taking the weekend off. I am doing this so I can move on next week to specific tales and more history. But what I offer today is also history and it's something I researched carefully. If you get to the end of today's post, there is a history of scholarship and the use of the term "Grateful Dead" in folklore scholarship.

There is debate over how the band--I must mention it here--got its name from the tale, but I can offer up what is more important to me--how the term was popularized in folklore. The credit goes to several scholars, but we can only credit those here who got it into print since they provide evidence that way. I don't say this in my introduction, but the scholarship of the likes of Alfred Nutt and Frances Hinde Groome implies that the folklore discussions off the books--and perhaps in unpublished papers--was in use by the 1890s if not earlier. I didn't hunt through archives of manuscripts and correspondence, but the tone and timeline of its appearance in published scholarship is offered here.

First of all, this book started when I discovered The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story by Gordon Hall Gerould. The book is older and is available online for free in various spots. It has had a semi-renaissance thanks to that although it has also been neglected and lost at times--it is not listed as a source in Uther's The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, for example. I built upon Gerould's work as well as that of other scholars, finding all the English tales available for reprint as well as translating a few myself into English. I also included scholarship that predated and postdated Gerould. The bibliographies in my book are a gold mine, if I do say so myself.

Since he used "Grateful Dead" in his title, Gerould is sometimes credited with coining the term. He certainly helped popularize and solidify it but it was already in use, surpassing the second most popular title of "Thankful Dead," both of which come from translating German scholarship ("Der dankbare Tote" and "Die dankbaren Todten"). I admit I am glad "Grateful" outpaced "Thankful." It feels more accurate in the nuances of the words after I have immersed myself in so many versions of the motif. Thanks to Gerould's work and others, Stith Thompson readily used the term when creating his motif and tale type guides.

Here's a little bit about Gerould's work from my introduction:

While the bulk of this book is devoted to sharing full text tales, romances, and plays with the Grateful Dead motif, it also includes some examples of early scholarship about the theme. In 1908, Gordon Hall Gerould wrote a monograph—The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story—in which he discussed over 100 variants of the tale, a remarkable and diverse piece of scholarship that has received higher recognition in recent years. The full text of Gerould’s work is provided in this volume.

While Gerould’s theories on the evolution of the Grateful Dead folktale type are overall obsolete, the book is still a highly useful resource. Gerould provides short, abbreviated titles for each of the tales he studies which can be found in his second chapter, Bibliography, on page 8. A list of Gerould’s titles can also be found in a chart in the end matter of this book with full titles and their tale types when available. Gerould shares useful summaries and groupings of the tales, providing a wider survey of the stories with this motif than most other studies of the tale. This is especially helpful with the dozens of tales he summarizes from other languages, tales that have rarely, if ever, been published in English translation.

While this present book was launched from Gerould’s work, it also extends beyond it, offering more recent scholarship and tales that were not included in Gerould’s original study.

And now some history of the term "Grateful Dead." That's where I hunted and hunted along the journey of researching this book. I may have missed some pieces--it happens, alas--but I searched and found much. Here goes, again from my introduction:

The following is an incomplete overview of the early scholarship about The Grateful Dead. For a more complete overview, this section should be combined with Chapter 1: A Review in The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story by Gordon Hall Gerould, included in this volume. Gerould offers the most important examples of Grateful Dead scholarship published prior to 1908, most of which were written in other languages, primarily German. Not all of those are listed here—including important studies such as Hippe’s monograph, Untersuchungen zu der mittelenglischen Romanze von Sir Amadas, which appeared in 1888 —since they would serve merely as direct repetition of Gerould’s overview.

The primary purpose of this brief chronology is to share the history of the term “Grateful Dead” as the English language title for this type of folktale in folklore scholarship. There has been speculation that Gerould popularized the title but this overview will show that the phrase was in regular use before his study was published in 1908.

A more complete overview of Grateful Dead scholarship up to 2015 can be found in the bibliography of secondary sources in the end matter of this book.

Simrock, Karl. Der gute Gerhard und die dankbaren Todten: Ein Beitrag zur deutschen mythologies und Sagenkunde. Bonn: A. Marcus, 1856.

Karl Simrock is readily credited with publishing the first study of tales relating to Grateful Dead scholarship, bringing focused attention to the tale type. His study is limited to a small number of tales—less than twenty—from a small geographic region. However, his work inspired further scholarship and references to the theme by later folklorists.

Simrock, writing in German in 1856, uses the phrase “die dankbaren Todten” which most often translates to either “Thankful Dead” or “Grateful Dead.” The English term “Grateful Dead” does not appear in the book, but the first hints at the English title are provided here and are clearly inspired by Simrock’s German terminology.

Stephens, George, editor. Ghost-thanks: or, The Grateful Unburied: A Mythic Tale in Its Oldest European Form: Sir Amadace. Cheapinghaven, Denmark: Michaelsen and Tillge, 1860.

This is the first significant study of the Grateful Dead theme written in English only a few years after Simrock’s work. It is the introduction to a book containing Sir Amadace, otherwise known as Sir Amadas, the medieval English romance. Stephens does not use the term “grateful dead” anywhere in the book. His focus rests primarily on the romance of Sir Amadace, but he is obviously aware of Simrock’s work and references other “grateful unburied” stories in his analysis.

Ker, W. P. “The Roman van Walewein (Gawain).” Folklore. Vol. 5, No. 2 (Jun. 1894). pp. 121-128.

In the notes to Ker’s article about another romance with Grateful Dead elements, Roman van Walewein, the editor Alfred Nutt, a noted folklorist and publisher, uses the phrase “grateful dead” when referencing George Stephens’ earlier work:

"In Prof. G. Stephens’ monograph on the “grateful dead” incident (Sir Amadace, Cheapinghaven, 1860), the oldest example he cites is a middle thirteenth century Swedish translation of a French legend, the hero of which is Pippin."

Groome, Francis Hindes. “Tobit and Jack the Giant-Killer.” Folklore, Volume 9. London: Folklore Society and David Nutt, 1898.

A few years after Nutt’s usage, Groome uses the term in this article that primarily summarizes several tales with Grateful Dead themes without providing much analysis. The article is included in its entirety in this volume. Here is the example of Groome’s usage:

The late Professor Stephens, in his edition of Sir Amadace (Copenhagen, 1860), was the first to point out the connection between the story of Tobit and that of The Grateful Dead.

Note that Groome capitalizes the term, emphasizing its usage in describing a tale type.

Groome, Francis Hindes. Gypsy Folk-Tales. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1899.

Groome uses the term again a year later in his collection of Gypsy folktales: “in both ‘Sir Amadas’ and the Russian version the Grateful Dead returns as an angel.” Again the usage is capitalized.

Beatty, Arthur. A New Ploughman’s Tale: Thomas Hoccleve’s Legend of the Virgin and Her Sleeveless Garment. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1902.

In his introduction to the book, in reference to a poem, Beatty writes, “This poem has a further interest in its similarity to the wide-spread medieval story of the grateful dead man, and how he rewards the knight who risks everything to obtain for the corpse a decent burial.” The poem he references is “The Grateful Dead” by John Lydgate (c. 1370–c. 1451).

The question that arises from the title of Lydgate’s poem is whether it is a name he provided himself which would date the phrase several centuries earlier. The short, straightforward answer: No, Lydgate did not use the title himself.

The title to the poem appears to have been provided by Beatty, implying that “Grateful Dead” was certainly the preferred term by this time in scholarship, although there are not many published instances to support this beyond those provided here. However, Lydgate’s poem was also reprinted earlier in Old Ballads, from Early Printed Copies of the Utmost Rarity (1840) and given the title “Legend of a Monk of Paris” instead, further evidence that Beatty’s assigned title was not Lydgate’s title. Beatty’s choice of title appears to have been influenced by the growing popularity of the “grateful dead” folklore scholarship.

Gerould, Gordon Hall. The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story. London: David Nutt, 1908.

By 1908, when Gerould published his study of the folktale, the term “The Grateful Dead” was unquestionably the accepted standard in English. While Gerould did not invent the phrase, since it was used regularly for at least 14 years previous to his publication, his usage solidified the preference for the term in English language scholarship.

Bolte, Johannes, and Georg Polívka. “Der dankbare Tote und die aus der Sklaverei erlöste Königstochter [The Thankful Dead and the Princess Redeemed from Slavery].” Anmerkungen zu den Kinder-und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm: Dritter Band NR. 121-225 [III]. Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1918. pp. 490-517.

Liljeblad, Sven. Die Tobiasgeschichte und andere Märchen mit toten Helfern [The History of Tobias and Other Tales of Dead Helpers]. Lund: Ph. Lindstedt, 1927.

These final two studies were published after Gerould’s and are generally considered two of the most important studies of the tale. While the Grateful Dead has remained of interest, it has not inspired the publication of longer studies, but generally shorter articles focused on only a few tales, not the large, diverse family of Grateful Dead tales offered here.


  1. Happy Birthday Heidi!! This is great - thank you! (And I put up a little birthday wave over on OUABlog before seeing this too - heh.) Have a wonderful weekend off!
    PS Are there any Grateful Dead tales in which the dead person comes back to life?

    1. Thank you, Gypsy. And thanks for the awesome post on your blog about the SurLaLune Fairy Tales library. It was a definite highlight in a difficult week that included a funeral and other trials. Thank you for sharing this fairy tale world with me!

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