Goats and Trolls

In my previous post you learned and used the story analysis tool called The Hand. Now we will compare several versions of a well-known Norwegian folktale with the same analysis tool.

That well-known folktale happens to be “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” which was my favorite story when I was a kid. My brother and I heard this story so many times he became convinced that a troll lurked under Otowi Bridge, near where we lived.

Photo of Otowi Bridge courtesey of Ira Catron

Crossing Otowi bridge involved a certain amount of drama on his part until my father decreed thatn New Mexican trolls ate “French Fried Pajama-Mordems” (spelling and exact definition uncertain) instead of kids — especially human kids.

As much as I loved The Three BIlly Goats Gruff,” I spent years avoidiing actually telling the story. I wanted to tell long complicated folktales like “Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce,” rather than stories I figured everybody knew.

As a matter of fact, here is “Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce,” the title story of my book which was recently released by the Small Tooth Dog Publishing Group.

I was not all that wrong about “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” If you google the story you will find hit after hit: children’s books, videos of people reading the story out loud, cartoons, cartoons with people reading out loud, people telling the story.

If you read this version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff you will get a pretty good idea of the shape of the story as it is generally told. This is not to say that this is the “original” version. There is no absolute original version. This is the version that the Norwegian collectors Asbjornsen and Moe chose to publish in their Norske Folkeeventyr. And what we read was the way the English scholar and diplomat George Webbe Dasent translated the Norwegian into English in his book Popular Tales of the Norse.

Just for fun, here’s the way I tell the story. The video was an experiment in telling a story outdoors, during a spring snowstorm. (I mean, why not?)

This is not all that much different than most of the versions you can find on Google — the details vary but the story is the same.

But what about this version? Is it even the same story?

We can use the 5P’s to compare the Ashliman version of the story with the Opera version:

5 P’sAshlimanOpera
PeopleLittlest Billy Goat Gruff Middle Billy Goat Gruff Biggest Billy Goat Gruff A TrollLucy, a young girl Ernesto, a boy (but is sung by a girl) Dandini, a boy Osmin, a big bully (All characters are presented as humans wearing hats with goat horns.
PlaceBridge – only route to a meadow of green grassBridge children want to cross on their way home from playing together
ProblemTroll intends to eat the goatsOsmin, the bully blocks the bridge and steals Lucy’s toy goat.
ProgressThe Littlest Billy Goat Gruff tells Troll to wait for the Middle Billy Goat Gruff, who would make a better meal. The Middle Billy Goat Gruff tells the Troll to wait for the Biggest one. The Biggest kills the troll and throws the smashed body into the river.The boys decide to take a longer route home. Lucy returns to the bridge to get her toy back. She accidentally pushes the Osmin into the water. He is very upset but she is nice to him which makes him decide to stop being a bully.
PointBigger brothers need to protect smaller ones from danger. It helps to work as a team. If you can’t smash a troll, fool him.Bullies feel badly about themselves. If you are nice to one, he will stop being a bully.

I would be inclined to argue that the two stories do not share much more than a title and a bridge. In the case of the folktale, the people are a set of three brothers who are goats, and a troll. The opera people are four unrelated children, all wearing goat-horn hats. There is a substantial difference between brothers and unrelated friends and there is also a substantial difference between bullies and trolls. The troll, for instance, wanted to gobble up the goats. The bully snatched a toy goat.

Even the function of the bridge is different. In the folktale, the goats must cross the bridge if they are to eat. The opera children want to cross the bridge but there is another way home. The Progress in the folktale is simple. The first two goats tell the troll to wait for their bigger brother. The biggest goat destroys the troll. Progress in the opera is much more complex, and the damage done to the bully is both inadvertent, minor and healed by a simple apology. The points are also very different.

All this leads me to the conclusion that the opera story is only distantly related to the folktale. Where the other versions changed the details, the opera version changes the bones. And if the bones change the story is changed.

Even the function of the bridge is different. In the folktale, the goats must cross the bridge if they are to eat. The opera children want to cross the bridge but there is another way home. The Progress in the folktale is simple. The first two goats tell the troll to wait for their bigger brother. The biggest goat destroys the troll. Progress in the opera is much more complex, and the damage done to the bully is both inadvertent, minor and healed by a simple apology. The points are also very different.

In this post you used the Hand to compare two versions of the same story. You observed that one of these is quite different than the other because the bones of the story have been changed. In the next post you will learn how to tell the difference between details and bones and why those differences matter.

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