The Grateful Dead; the history of a folk story/The Relations of The Grateful Dead to The Spendthrift Knight, The Two Friends, and The Thankful Beasts

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The Grateful Dead; the history of a folk story by Gordon Hall Gerould
The Relations of The Grateful Dead to The Spendthrift Knight, The Two Friends, and The Thankful Beasts



We have met at various points in our study with tales in which the motive of the hero's fateful journey was his impoverishment through extravagance; we have seen that many variants make the division of a child part of the agreement between the ghost and the hero; and we have noted the appearance of the ghost in the form of a beast in a large number of instances. The bearing of these phenomena we shall do well to investigate before proceeding to general conclusions. Occurring as they do in versions which have been assigned on other accounts to different categories, are they of sufficient importance to disturb the classification already proposed? Furthermore, what cause can be found for their introduction? Are they in reality sporadic, or are they the result of some determinable factor in the history of the cycle?

Eleven variants, namely, Richars, Oliver, Lope de Vega, Dianese, Old Swedish, Icelandic I., Icelandic II., Rittertriuwe, Treu Heinrich, and Sir Aniadas, have more or less clearly expressed the motive of a knight who has exhausted his patrimony and goes out to recruit his fortunes by winning a princess in a tourney. The figure of such a knight or adventurer is not an uncommon one in the fiction of Europe, and scarcely requires illustration. Of the variants just named all except Oliver, Lope de Vega, and Old Swedish actually state that the hero sets out from home on account of his poverty. In the two former the motive of the incestuous stepmother is introduced in place of this, and in Old Swedish the trait is obscured without any substitution, implying that the hero is led merely by ambition to undertake the tourney. On the other hand, the tourney occurs in all save Icelandic I. and II., which are the only folk-tales in the list. The second of these, moreover, makes the hero a merchant instead of a knight; but since the two come from the same island and are in other respects rather similar,[1] this is perhaps not very significant.

Looking at the matter from another point of view, we find that Richars, Lion de Bourges, Dianese, Old Swedish, Rittertriuwe, and Sir Amadas form a group by themselves,[2] and are uncompounded with any one of the themes with which The Grateful Dead is most frequently allied. Oliver and Lope de Vega are treated under the compound with The Ransomed Woman, where on account of the rescue of the hero by the ghost they probably belong;[3] and Icelandic I. and II. are clearly of that type. Treu Heinrich[4] shows the combination of the central theme with The Water of Life, and can in the nature of the case have no direct connection with the other romance stories under consideration, even though it belongs to a class in which The Ransomed Woman sometimes appears.[5] In view of these discrepancies of position with reference to compounds which are clearly established, we are certainly not justified in assuming that The Spendthrift Knight has had anything more than a superficial relationship to The Grateful Dead. To make it a basis of classification or to attach any considerable weight to its appearance here and there would be contrary to the only safe method of procedure, which is to follow the evidence of events in sequence rather than isolated traits. The very fact that none of the compounds with The Poison Maiden contains any such motive as this of the knight and the tourney shows that it must be comparatively late and really an interloper in the family.

As to the way by which it entered the cycle, one must conclude that it was afloat in Europe before the thirteenth century,[6] and furnished a very natural opening for a tale in which a youth goes into the world to seek adventure or profit. Were a lady to be won by the help of the ghost, it would magnify the hero's part, if he were given an opportunity to take some very direct share in the wooing. So in the group of which Richars and Sir Amadas are members the new theme supplied the means of winning a lady, which would otherwise be lacking. In Oliver and Lope de Vega it has perhaps supplanted the ransom of a maiden, which is the trait to be expected, if they are rightly placed among the variants of the type The Grateful Dead + The Ransomed Woman. It will be noted that in the two Icelandic tales, which conform closely to the type, the tourney does not appear. There seems to be reason, therefore, for supposing that the new material touched our central theme at least twice, combining with the prototype of the Amadas group and of the Icelandic folk-stories. The authors of Oliver and Treu Heinrich may have adopted it consciously, and so these variants should be left out of account.

Before leaving the matter, however, it must be noted that in Tobit the hero leaves home on account of the poverty of his father to seek the help of a relative. The ever-recurring possibility of a recollection of Tobit on the part of the European story-tellers[7] should not be forgotten. To argue that the suggestion of adapting The Spendthrift Knight was due to a conscious or unconscious recollection of the Apocrypha would be laying too much stress upon what can at best be nothing more than conjecture, but there can be no harm in the surmise that such may have been the case.

The matter of the division of his child or children by the hero to fulfil the bargain made with his helper must next be discussed. This occurs in twenty-five of the variants which we have considered, namely: Lithuanian II., Transylvanian, Lope de Vega, Oliver, Jean de Calais I.-X., Basque II., Gaelic, Irish I, Breton I., III, and VII., Simrock I, II., and VIII., Sir Amadas, and Factor's Garland. With reference to one group where the trait appears[8] I have already spoken at some length of The Two Friends, and I have referred to the introduction of the children as they have appeared in scattered variants. I now wish to call the reader's attention to the general aspects of the question. What relation has the use of this trait in versions of The Grateful Dead to the theme which I call The Two Friends?

It must first be noted that the motive as it appears in Amis and Amiloun requires[9] that the hero slay his children for the healing of his foster-brother and sworn friend. Now of the twenty-five variants of The Grateful Dead just named only Oliver and Lope de Vega have this factor,—the others merely state that the helper asked the hero to fulfil his bargain by giving up his only child,[10] or giving up one of his two children,[11] or dividing his only child,[12] or dividing his three children.[13]

The query at once suggests itself as to whether the simple division of the child or children as part of the hero's possessions gave rise to the introduction of the whole theme of The Two Friends in Oliver and Lope de Vega, or whether the twenty-two folk-tales have merely an echo of the theme as there found. To put the question is almost equivalent to answering it. One sees at once that the former is the case. Lope de Vega derives directly from Oliver[14] and to the author of that romance must be due the combination of the two themes there presented. Reference to the earlier discussion of the variant[15] will show that he was a conscious adapter of his material.

Yet it by no means follows that the suggestion for the combination was not present in the version of The Grateful Dead, which was used in making Oliver. Indeed, it seems probable that this source or prototype had the division of the child in somewhat the form in which it appears in so many tales. That such was the case is likely from the fact that of the twenty-two folk variants which refer to the child all but two are of the type The Grateful Dead + The Ransomed Woman, to which Oliver is approximated. Considering the alterations which the theme was likely to suffer at the hands of a writer who was more or less consciously combining various material in a romance, the wonder is that the type was not more changed than it seems to have been. In point of fact, the position of Oliver and its literary successors as examples of the compound comes out more clearly[16] through this examination of their relationship to The Two Friends.

As to the introduction of the child, the trait by means of which, according to my theory, the actual combination of motives came about, the two folk-tales of the type The Grateful Dead + The Poison Maiden as well as Sir Amadas, are of great importance. Since the great majority of the variants which have the child belong clearly to the compound type with The Ransomed Woman, it is only by reference to these three that one can say with assurance that the modified trait indicates no vital connection with The Two Friends. Yet with these in mind there can be little doubt about the matter. The story-tellers have simply extended the division of the hero's possessions from property and wife to child, a process perhaps made easier by the existence of such stories as The Child Vowed to the Devil[17] and some forms of the Souhaits Saint Martin.[18] This might have happened to any particular variant with equal facility. At the same time, the fact that the change was made in only three cases outside the group, which has The Ransomed Woman in combination, gives that family additional solidarity.

In Oliver, Lope de Vega, and Sir Amadas the motive of The Spendthrift Knight appears together with the change or combination just referred to. At first sight, it might appear that there was some essential connection between these two elements foreign to the main theme. Such does not seem to be the case, however, when the matter is further considered. At any rate, I am unable to discover any such link, and am inclined to ascribe the simultaneous appearance of these two factors to chance pure and simple. Neither one is more than a rather late and comparatively unimportant phenomenon as far as The Grateful Dead is concerned.

Not infrequently in the course of this study attention has been called to the substitution of a beast for the helping friend of the hero, and in a few cases to the transference of the ghost's entire rôle to an animal. While considering matters of greater importance, it seemed best to ignore this in order to avoid unnecessary confusion. The matter is of considerable importance, however, and must here be considered. The question that concerns us is whether the appearance of the beast is of any real moment in the development of the theme.

It is sufficiently clear that the well-known stories of grateful animals and ungrateful men, which were first traced by Benfey,[19] have general outlines different from that of The Grateful Dead. Benfey's contention, however, that "konnte der Gedanke von der Dankbarkeit der Thiere schon tief genug auch im Occident einwurzeln, um auch in andere Märchen einzudringen und vielleicht selbst sich in Bildung von verwandten zur Anschauung zu bringen"[20] should be kept in mind. This statement is truer than his later remark[21] that fairies and other superhuman creations of fancy are substituted for animals, instancing our theme as such a case. To argue relationship from the entrance of either helpful beasts, fairies, or ghosts would be dangerous unless the stories in question had the same motive, since they are so frequently found in folkliterature. Indeed, as I have already remarked,[22] one is scarcely called upon to explain the intrusion of thankful or helpful animals at any given point, in view of the fact that the device is almost universally known. Yet if it does not require justification, it may well be of service in the grouping of particular variants.

It is certainly worthy of notice that in eighteen forms of The Grateful Dead a beast appears. That these are of several different compound types would show, if it were not clear from what has been said above, that the appearance of an animal furnishes of itself no evidence of any actual amalgamation of narrative themes. It is rather a case where one stock figure of imagination's realm is substituted for another. The better-known character is perhaps more likely to replace the less-known than vice versa, but the latter event may happen if the obscurer figure will serve to enliven the tale.

Of the twenty variants in our cycle which have a thankful beast, Jewish has the simple theme; Servian IV. the combination with The Poison Maiden; Jean de Calais II., VII., and X., Simrock II., III., V., and VIII., and Oldenburgian the combination with The Ransomed Woman; and Walewein, Lotharingian, Tuscan, Brazilian, Basque I., Breton IV., V., and VI., and Simrock IX. the combination with The Water of Life.

Now in Jewish[23] the hero is saved from shipwreck[24] by a stone, carried home by an eagle, and there met by a white-clad man, who explains the earlier appearances. This is mere reinforcement of the tale by triplication, and implies nothing more than a certain vigour of imagination on the part of the story-teller. In Servian IV.,[25] where the hero spares a fish which he has caught, there appears, on the contrary, to be actual combination with The Thankful Beasts as a motive. The fish comes on the scene in human form, and fulfils the part of the grateful dead till the very end, when it leaps back into its element. As for the variants of the compound type with The Ransomed Woman there is considerable diversity, yet all of them have merely substitution, not combination. So in Jean de Calais II., VII. and X.,[26] which are closely allied with other members of the group so named, the beast appears, but in one case as a white bird, in the second as a fox, and in the third as a crow. That this is anything more than a substitution due to the story-teller's individuality cannot be admitted, though knowledge of The Thankful Beasts as a motive is not barred out. Simrock II. and VIII.[27] are likewise nearly related to one another and to Jean de Calais, and they have the same adventitious substitution. Simrock V. and Oldenburgian are a similar pair,[28] while Simrock III.,[29] which is otherwise allied to Bohemian, cannot be shown to have any vital connection with The Thankful Beasts as a motive. Of all these tales it can be said that they show some influence from such a theme without actual combination. Finally, all the variants of the type The Grateful Dead + The Water of Life, which have the animal substituted,[30] belong to a well-defined and centralized group[31] which has had independent existence for centuries. Here the entrance of the beast is of considerable importance to the classification and development of the theme.

Of the part which The Thankful Beasts as a motive has played in connection with The Grateful Dead it must be said that, on the whole, it has been of very secondary importance. It illustrates, as do The Spendthrift Knight and The Two Friends, how one current theme may touch and even influence another at several different points without becoming embodied with it. This trait or that may be absorbed as the motives meet, yet the two waves may go their way without mingling.

  1. See pp. 89 f.
  2. See pp. 33-40.
  3. See pp. 92-96.
  4. See pp. 131-134.
  5. P. 149.
  6. The date of Richars.
  7. See pp. 50, 58.
  8. See pp. 92-111.
  9. See p. 92.
  10. As in Lithuanian II., Breton VII., Simrock I., and Factor's Garland.
  11. As in Transylvanian.
  12. As in Jean de Calais I.-X., Basque II., Irish I., Breton I. and III., Simrock II. and VIII., and Sir Amadas.
  13. As in Gaelic.
  14. See p. 95.
  15. See pp. 93 f.
  16. See p. 94.
  17. See references in Publ. Mod. Lang. Ass. xx. 545.
  18. See my article in Publ. Mod. Lang. Ass. xix. 427, 430-432.
  19. Pantschatantra, i. §71.
  20. i. 207.
  21. i. 219.
  22. Pp. 126 f.
  23. See p. 27.
  24. So in Polish of the type The Grateful Dead + The Water of Life the ghost appears as a plank. See p. 128.
  25. Seep. 57.
  26. See pp. 100-102, 104 f.
  27. See pp. 108 ff.
  28. See pp. 115 f.
  29. See pp. 112 f.
  30. See pp. 135 ff.
  31. See also p. 151.