Details? Or bones?

In the previous post, Trolls and Goats, we compared the traditional Norwegian folktale, Three Billy Goats Gruff, with a children’s opera that claimed to be based on the original story. The story analysis tool we learned to use in an earlier post helped us see that the two versions of the goats-meet-troll story bore very little resemblance to each other. The creators of the opera had changed the bones of the story so much that the point of their story was completely different than the point of the original folktale. Change the bones, change the story.

This post will explore the fine line between bones and details. During our exploration of that line, you will learn a bit about the ATU folktale classification system as well as become familiar with one of the best internet folktale resources around.

Let’s start by taking one more look at “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Story crafters are often encouraged to change the details of a folktale to make it “their own.” But how do we tell bones from details? Some of it is simply common sense. In almost every version of the Billy Goat Gruff, the goats are in search of nice green grass, but the location of that grass varies. And it really does not matter if the grass is high on a mountain or in a meadow on the other side of the river. The story remains the same. So, the location of the grass is definitely a detail.

But that the goats are looking for something to eat. They are hungry. That might be one of the bones of the story. Now let’s consider the fate of the troll. In the Dasent version, the troll is “crushed to bits, body, and bones. In other versions, he simply suffers the indignity of being thrown in the river. Detail? Or Bone? I’d argue that ending up in the river is a bone, but the precise fate (death by crushing, death by drowning or merely a unexpected swim) is a detail.

Aarne, Thompson and Uther

Sometimes we need help identifying the bones of a story. This is where the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Tale Type Index comes in.

Antti Aarne was a Finnish folkorist who published the earliest version of this folktale classification system in 1910. His analysis and classification focused primarily on European folktales. (In spite of the fact that he was Finnish, he published in the German language.)

In 1928, Stith Thompson, an American, expanded the scope of Aarne’s system. He also translated it from German into English. The resulting Aarne-Thompson Tale Type system was used for many years and you can still find references to AT Tale Type numbers. It was not until 2004 that Hans-Jorg Uther updated and expanded the system once again. These updates included the removal of some of the more sexist assumptions in some of the tale type titles.

Here is the index to the The Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification of Folktales. The system makes sense, although actually navigating the details tended to drive my Multicultural Folktale students nuts.

If we look at “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” we find that it is ATU Tale Type 122E “Wait for the Fat Goat.” Ok. What does that mean?

Here’s another fantastic folktale resource: D. L. Ashliman Folktexts.

Ashliman is a former professor who has turned to providing links to as many folktales as possible in his retirement. As you may notice, this site offers either the name of the most common folktale of a given type, or the name of the type itself in the index. Thus the website starts with “Abducted by Aliens” and moves on to “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” This is not the most common tale type around – he offers only three tales; the Norwegian, German, and Polish versions. But these three tales share what we might call plot points that help us identify the bones. And here they are:

  • It’s always goats
  • There is always a dangerous predator
  • The first two goats always advise the predator to wait for the third goat
  • The third, final, largest, fastest goat always destroys the predator.

And, to move us beyond The Three Billy Goats Gruff, here’s a Norwegian folktale that does not include a troll! It does feature a hero who is often called Boots in English.And, to move us beyond The Three Billy Goats Gruff, here’s a Norwegian folktale that does not include a troll! It does feature a hero who is often called Boots in English.And, to move us beyond The Three Billy Goats Gruff, here’s a Norwegian folktale that does not include a troll!

The character of Boots tends to take on one of two possible forms. The first is the Boots we see in this story – the only son of a widow. As an only son, he is a dreamer and an independent and impractical thinker, which means his mother worries about him. A lot. But she knows he’s a good boy and that he will turn out all right I the end. In other stories, Boots is the youngest of three boys and it is his job to clean the family’s boots. Given the conditions of a pre-industrial Norwegian farm (mud, animal waste, etc), the job was a disgusting one, fit only for the family fool. The Norwegian version of the hero’s name translates as “Ash Lad,” because Boots’ two older brothers consider him a lazy idiot who never leaves the fireplace (i.e., his mother’s side). Interestingly, there is an Appalachian story “Jack and the North West Wind,” that is almost exactly like the Boots story. This is because Boots and Jack are the same figure. Jack, by the way, is the same Jack as the one who killed the giant, is connected with Jack o’ Lanterns AND went up the hill with Jill! Both the Norwegian and the Appalachian versions are examples of ATU Tale Type 563, The Three Magic Gifts.

In this post you explored two valuable sources of information for story crafters, especially those who work in the oral tradition. The ATU Index helps you find families of folktales (and families can be assumed to share bones). D.L. Ashliman’s site helps you find examples of stories within the families. And comparing those examples makes it easier to find the bones. But what about Historical Fiction? Does it have bones? We’ll look at that in the next post.

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