By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff is well-known throughout Europe, and perhaps even further afield. But what is less well-known is that the story has its origins, not in French or German or Danish literature, like many other fairy tales that are well-known to English-speaking readers, but in Scandinavian literature.
Let’s take a closer look at the origins and meaning of the intriguing tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. But before we come to the textual analysis, here’s a brief recap or plot summary of what the tale’s about.
Three Billy Goats Gruff: plot summary
The tale focuses on three male goats or ‘billy goats’, configured as various family members in different versions of the tale (e.g., mother, father, son), but most often three (young) brothers. ‘Gruff’, by the way, is meant to be their surname, an English rendering of the Norwegian Bruse.
These three billy goats have eaten almost all of the grass in the field where they live. In order to continue to eat and fatten themselves up, they know they need to cross the river to the meadow. There’s only one problem: under the bridge they must cross, there lives a fearsome troll, who is known for eating anyone who tries to cross ‘his’ bridge.
The smallest billy goat heads across the bridge first. Sure enough, before he can cross all the way, the troll appears and tells him he will gobble up the little goat. But the little goat persuades the troll to wait for his big brother to cross, as he’s much larger than the little billy goat and the troll will get a far bigger meal out of him. The troll, being greedy, agrees, letting the little billy goat cross the bridge safely.
The second goat passes next: not as small as the first goat, but not as big as his other brother. He, too, is stopped by the troll, who threatens to gobble him up. This second billy goat tells the troll that his brother, who is on his way, is even bigger than he is, so he should wait for him to cross and then he’ll be treated to a really big meal. The troll agrees, letting this second goat safely over the bridge.
The third billy goat arrives and – you’ve guessed it – the troll stops him and threatens to gobble him up. This billy goat Gruff calls the troll’s bluff: go on then, he dares him, eat me up. The troll leaps to devour the goat, and the billy goat knocks the troll off the bridge, using his horns. The troll falls into the river and is quickly carried away by the current.
From that day on, the bridge is safe and the Three Billy Goats Gruff live happily ever after, able to move across the bridge at their will.
Three Billy Goats Gruff: analysis
‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’ is perhaps the best-known fairy tale (to English readers at least) that has a Norwegian origin. The story was collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in their Norske Folkeeventyr, published in the 1840s when Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales were starting to become popular beyond his native country of nearby Denmark.
The tale appears to have made its debut in English in 1859, at a time when numerous native English Victorian fairy tales were becoming the staple reading of children. It’s been popular ever since.
The moral of the story, if such a fairy tale can be said to have a clear moral lesson, is to caution children against greed: the troll comes a-cropper because he passes over the first and second goats because of the promise of an even bigger, fatter goat on its way. But in waiting for a bigger goat, he also sets himself up for a fall, because it means he must face a greater adversary – and the biggest of the three goats has little difficulty in using his horns to butt the hapless troll into the water below.
In this respect, we might connect ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ with Aesop’s famous fable about the geese that laid the golden eggs, which is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of not being happy with what luck throws your way and greedily wanting more.
Another fairy tale which revolves around greed, the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, reputedly dates back in one form or another some 4,000 years, showing how long the sin of greed has been warned against in the oral tradition.
The story also features a number of other tropes and plot features which we find in many other fairy tales: the pattern of three, for instance, is present in the three billy goats and three encounters with the troll. As with both the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears and the story of the three little pigs, the third iteration or encounter differs from the first two and provides the denouement or climax to the story’s action.
Trolls, of course, are strongly associated with Scandinavian folklore, and the troll on his bridge is what signals the story’s Norwegian origins. The word stems from Old Norse nouns troll and troll meaning ‘fiend’ or ‘demon’. The word for someone who annoys people on the internet for the hell of it, by the way, is unrelated: that ‘troll’ is from the French verb troller, meaning to go in quest of game or sport.