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Annotations for Three Billy Goats Gruff

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Three Billy Goats Gruff: Folktales of Aarne-Thompson type 122E
by D. L. Ashliman


The annotations for the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Three Billy Goats Gruff Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Three Billy Goats Gruff to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.

1. Three: The number and/or pattern of three often appears in fairy tales to provide rhythm and suspense. The pattern adds drama and suspense while making the story easy to remember and follow. The third event often signals a change and/or ending for the listener/reader.

The reasons and theories behind three's popularity are numerous and diverse. The number has been considered powerful across history in different cultures and religions, but not all of them. Christians have the Trinity, the Chinese have the Great Triad (man, heaven, earth), and the Buddhists have the Triple Jewel (Buddha, Dharma, Sanga). The Greeks had the Three Fates. Pythagoras considered three to be the perfect number because it represented everything: the beginning, middle, and end. Some cultures have different powerful numbers, often favoring seven, four and twelve.
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2. Billy goats: A billy goat is a male goat (WordNet).
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3.  Hillside: Goats often graze on mountains and hillsides in Scandinavian countries. The difference in landscape in Scandinavian tales such as this one from the landscapes found in the Grimms' tales reflects the geographical difference between the two countries. In this tale and East of the Sun and West of the Moon, we have hills and rivers while in the Grimms' tales we have forests and wooded areas.
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4.  Make themselves fat: The goats are hungry and want to eat. They will make themselves fat by eating the green grass on the hill. In this story, being big and fat is an advantage and desirable trait.
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5.  Gruff: In English, gruff is an adjective meaning "deep and harsh sounding as if from shouting or illness or emotion" or "brusque and surly and forbidding" (WordNet).
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6.  Bridge: Bridges are useful structures, providing passages over treacherous landscape such as rivers, gulleys, and other natural phenomena. Sometimes bridges can be the only means over a dangerous area for miles around. In addition, whoever controls the bridge dictates who crosses the bridge. Thus we have toll bridges where travelers must pay to cross a bridge. Here, the troll controls the bridge and demands a very high toll for crossing--the goat's life!
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7.  Troll: Trolls originated in Scandinavian folklore. They are large and powerful monsters, enemies to humans. Some protagonists in folklore seek the treasures hidden by trolls in their castles or simply to rescue another human captured by a troll. They are similar to ogres in that they have low intelligence and can often be defeated through a battle of wits. They travel at night and live in darkness since their greatest weakness is sunlight. Direct sunlight will cause them to either burst or turn to stone (Jones 1995). Trolls also appear on this site in East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
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8.  The youngest Billy Goat Gruff: Unlike the majority of folktales, the youngest goat will not be the hero of the story. In this tale, size matters and thus the eldest and largest goat will save the day.
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9.  Trip, trap, trip, trap!: Here we have a great use of onomatopoeia which is "using words that imitate the sound they denote" (WordNet). Storytellers enjoy using onomatopoeia when storytelling to add vibrancy to the story.

Also note the different font sizes used for each goat's walk in the Dasent translation which I have reflected in the text.
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10.  Who's that tripping over my bridge?: While the most common usage of the word trip means to stumble or misstep, in this instance trip takes on the less common definition of "a light or nimble tread" (WordNet). The goats are not clumsy, they are agile and quick on their feet.
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11.  A small voice: The three goats speak in different size voices that reflect their physical size just like the the three bears in Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
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12.  Gobble you up: The troll wants to eat the goat for a meal. Note the word choice of gobble in this translation which is not overly frightening, but rather comical.

My favorite picture book version of the tale is retold by Mary Finch. She writes a little rhyme for the troll which is more threatening and deliciously scary. She writes:

"I'm a troll, from a deep dark hole,
My belly's getting thinner,
I need to eat--and goat's a treat--
So I'll have you for my dinner."

The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Mary Finch

Finch, Mary. The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Roberta Arenson, illustrator. New York: Barefoot Books, 2001.

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13. Wait a bit till the second Billy Goat Gruff comes. He's much bigger: This tale and others like it are placed in the AT 122E: Wait for the Bigger Goat class of the Aarne-Thompson classification system. 122E is a subcategory of of AT 122: The Trickster escapes.
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14.  Be off with you: Here is the cunning of the story. The troll is easily fooled into waiting for a bigger meal thanks to the goat's trickery. The troll doesn't even consider that this little goat would make a great appetizer to the meal of the larger goat. His greed simply makes him think about getting a bigger meal. He consequently lets the smaller goats pass.
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15.  Second Billy Goat Gruff: The second goat, while bigger than the first, is still not big enough to triumph in a physical contest with the troll. He, too, uses cunning to convince the troll to wait for the bigger meal. In some versions of the story, and in one set of finger puppets made by Manhattan Toy Company, the second goat is female.
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16.  Big Billy Goat Gruff: We know the climax of the story is approaching since this is the third and final goat. Something different during this goat's encounter with the troll. From the goat's heavy approach to the way he announces himself, we know that this goat is much bigger and confident than the first two goats.
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17.  Who's that tramping over my bridge?: In this case, tramp means "a heavy footfall" (WordNet). The word choice provides a nice contrast to the earlier use of trip to describe the first two goats' footsteps.
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18.  He flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones: More recent retellings of the tale tend to downplay the violence or accentuate the comical elements of goat's confrontation of the troll.
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19.  Cascade: A cascade is "a small waterfall or series of small waterfalls" (WordNet). Cascades result in rapidly moving water which rush the troll far away. It is safe to assume the troll is dead.
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20.  Snip, snap, snout/ This tale's told out: Early literary versions of fairy tales often include a short verse at the beginning and/or end of the tale. The verse either provides a moral, usually at the end of the tale, or sets the tone of the story, usually at the beginning of the tale. The rhyme often lets the reader/listener know the narrator doesn't believe the story is true, except perhaps in a different time and place when animals behaved more like humans. This rhyme ends the story with a lighthearted tone despite the troll's violent end.
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©Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Page created 12/2002; Last updated 7/26/13