Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Three Billy-goats Gruff

First the tale, and then the notes, in which I discuss the name of the goats.

The Three Billy-goats Gruff, Who Were on their Way to Pasture to Make Themselves Fat

Once upon a time, there were three billy-goats who set off to pasture to make themselves fat, and all three were called Billy-goat Gruff. On the way, there was a bridge over a waterfall, which they had to cross; and under the bridge lived a terrible great troll, with eyes the size of tin plates, and a nose as long as a rake handle.

First came the youngest Billy-goat Gruff to cross the bridge.

“Trip-trap, trip-trap,” sounded the bridge.

“Who is that trip-trapping on my bridge?” shrieked the troll.

“Oh, it’s the youngest Bill-goat Gruff; I am on my way to pasture to make myself fat,” said the billy-goat, with his delicate voice.

“Here I come to take you,” said the troll.

“Oh no, don’t take me, for I am so small. Wait a little while, and the middle Billy-goat Gruff will be along: he is much larger than I.”

“Very well, then,” said the troll.

After a while, the middle Billy-goat Gruff came to cross the bridge.

“Trip-trap, trip-trap, trip-trap,” sounded the bridge.

“Who is that trip-trapping on my bridge?” shrieked the troll.

“Oh, it’s the middle Bill-goat Gruff, on my way to pasture to make myself fat,” said the billy-goat. His voice was not so delicate.

“Here I come to take you,” said the troll.

“Oh no, don’t take me. Wait a little while for the big Billy-goat Gruff: he is much larger than I.”

“Very well, then,” said the troll.

Straightway came the big Billy-goat Gruff.

“Trip-trap, trip-trap, trip-trap,” sounded the bridge. The billy-goat was so large that the bridge groaned and creaked under his weight.

“Who is that tramping on my bridge?” shrieked the troll.

“It is the big Billy-goat Gruff,” said the billy-goat with his coarse voice.

“Here I come to take you,” shrieked the troll.

Come on, then! My two spears shall fly,
And they shall put out your eyes!
My two great boulder-stones,
Shall crush both marrow and bone!

said the billy-goat. And then he charged the troll, put out his eyes, beat asunder marrow from bone, and tossed him over the waterfall. And then he went to pasture. There, the billy-goats grew fat, so fat that they were scarce able to walk home again. And if they haven’t lost the fat by now, well, then they have it yet.

And snip, snap, snout, this tale’s told out.

Notes on The Three Billy-Goats Gruff

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Many first heard “The Three Billy-goats Gruff” in their childhood. Also, if people have only heard one Norwegian- or even Scandinavian folktale, it is more often than not this one. The troll under the bridge, waiting to devour the billy-goats, is particularly Scandinavian in origin, other variants of this type of tale, most typically German, casting the wolf as villain.

The English title was given by the first English translator of Asbjørnsen and Moe, George Webbe Dasent in his Popular Tales from the Norse (1859). The only justification for the English title is the alliteration that it creates together with “goats”. When compared with the Norwegian title, Dasent’s choice of “Gruff” is simply baffling.

The Norwegian title is “De tre bukkene Bruse”. “Bruse” is a current Norwegian verb that primarily means, “fizz,” “bubble,” or “effervesce.” As a noun, it can refer to the thin rays of water that stream from, for example, a watering can; or to bushes or tufts of hair that resemble water streaming in such a manner.

For a long time, I was under the misapprehension that the the term had something to do with the bubbling mountain stream the billy-goats had to cross in order to get to the pasture. The misconception is fuelled by the majority of Norwegian dictionaries, which reproduce only the definitions of “bruse” listed above.

There are a couple of dissenting voices, however. In his dictionary from 1873, Ivar Aasen, the father of the Norwegian written form nynorsk, concludes that, in the case of the billy-goats, “Bruse” refers to the tufts of hair on their foreheads, between their eyes.

Whilst plausible as an explanation, Aasen’s claim is not as compelling as the connection a more modern nynorsk dictionary makes between the Norwegian “bruse” and the Old Norse “brúsi”, which simply means “billy-goat”, and which has been used as a given name since Viking times. Brúsi Sigurðsson (died before 1035), for example, was the second Earl of Orkney. The connection of “Bruse” with “Brúsi” gives sense to the first line of the folktale in question: “and all three were called Billy-goat Bruse.”1

Translating the title into English gives a rather strange effect: “The Three Billy-goats Billy-goat”. Clearly, this is not a solution. I looked briefly at “Bruce” as a prospective translation; but when I had stopped laughing at, “The Three Billy-goats Bruce,” the etymology of the false friend “Bruce” (from Old French for “willowlands”) put paid to the idea. (Luckily.)

In the end, I have concluded that the popularity of the tale in the guise of its first translation effectively prevents any change of title. Thanks to George Webbe Dasent’s partiality for the alliteration in “Billy-goats Gruff,” and thanks to the phenomenal popularity the tale has enjoyed all over the world since its publication, it should forever be known as “The Three Billy-goats Gruff.”


  1. The connection of modern Norwegian with Old Norse also suggests that we are reading a tale that originated up to 1000 years ago, when Old Norse was still the language of mainland Norway.

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