I got inspired to write a song about the Three Billy Goats Gruff by a classroom of preschoolers, especially the boys in the class. The classroom copy of the book featured the language that’s in my song, spoken by the third Billy Goat to the troll:
“Well, come along, I’ve got two spears, I’ll poke your eyeballs out of your ears.
I’ve got besides two curling stones. I’ll crush you to bits, body and bones.”
After I recorded the song, on my 2013 album Once Upon a Tune, at least one parent approached me with raised eyebrows over those lyrics. She wondered whether such violent language was appropriate for young children.
This brings up the bigger question of whether we should sanitize traditional folk tales, songs and nursery rhymes for children. My answer is, it depends. If the language of the story, song or rhyme conveys a sexist or racist stereotype, yes, definitely. I would strike such items completely from my repertoire.
But in the case of the Three Billy Goats, I challenge the necessity of easing up on the violent language.
To start with, it’s cartoonish fun. In making my video of my song, I had fun creating the image of the troll’s eyeballs getting blown out of his ears. Lots of kids love this stuff. The bad guy is really getting it!
Which, to me, is kind of the point. The troll is being a bully. The first two billy goats “think fast” and manage to outsmart the bully. The third billy goat can’t pull that trick anymore (although in my song, he thinks of it, then does a double take – Yikes!).
The third billy goat has to consider his own strengths, and how he might actually overcome the troll. It’s worth pointing out that my third billy goat isn’t without self-doubt. The song mentions that “Inside, he was sort of scared to death.” But he doesn’t let on how scared he is.
In my song, the goat doesn’t actually kill the troll. The troll is sufficiently scared by the goat’s threats that he beats a fast retreat down the river, never to be seen again. Still, there’s an intimation of violent action. Of course, the troll is the first one to threaten violence.
The troll, to me, represents not only evil in the world, but also the barriers that we put up between ourselves and getting to where we want to be. The troll could represent writer’s block or any other self-doubt or inner critic that keeps us from confidently moving forward. We have to stare it down and make it flee.
But returning to evil, that’s also real. I was once reading an alternative Billy Goats Gruff story that ends with the goats making peace with the troll and all is well. I never could buy that. I generally don’t discuss politics on this blog, but there are definitely evil forces in the world – appallingly evil. We can’t reason with them. We have to stand up to them with all our strength and (we hope) overcome them.
The same wisdom might be offered to children and youth who face bullying. It’s not usually the best thing to threaten to beat up a bully, especially if they’re much bigger and stronger. But it is important to remind kids that they have their own inner strengths and resources that can help them overcome bullies. Cue the Five Little Mice, my finger play in which the fifth mouse stands up to Angel, the cat, and says, “You great big bully, go away!”
I always make Angel (a puppet) look sad when the mouse calls him a bully. I doubt most bullies like to be called out. Angel turns soft-hearted in the end and lets all the mice go.
So I guess sometimes there can be peace with a bully. At least until the next time I sing “Five Little Mice.”
Just a further word about my illustrations … As a beginning illustrator, I definitely take inspiration from others who’ve been doing this for a while. I enjoyed the illustration by Anne E.G. Nydam, which is reprinted in this blog with her permission. I also enjoyed reading her blog post about the illustration and her thoughts on the Billy Goats Gruff story.