Can you guess which country this “eat-me-when-I’m-fatter” produced this fairytale? I’ll drop some clues:
Goats have historically been very important to this country, for their meat, milk and cheese.
It’s not a fertile country, which is always better for goats than for cattle and sheep.
It’s a land of mountains.
Yes, it’s Norway.
From ca. 1700 until 1850 the human population as well as the number of goats and sheep of this country almost tripled.
The increased pressure on the natural resources worsened the living conditions for people and animals alike.
A characteristic feature of this period was the herding of single flocks by children. During the daylight hours, this was a precaution against predators as well as a way of keeping the animals off the areas meant for the harvesting of winter fodder. At night, the small flocks were in some places gathered in mobile corrals guarded by adults with dogs.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff was first published between 1841 and 1844, when goats were important to survival. The idea of a creature taking the life of a goat was not so far removed from taking the life of a child (due to the resultant starvation).
My childhood version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff was unfortunately — I see now — not a good one. It’s the small format Little Golden Book published in 1982, retold by Ellen Rudin. (The 1980s were chocka block full of retold fairytales.)
Rudin has a good sense of rhythm, and has retained all the things that are fun about this story as a read-aloud, but I feel the point of it is lost.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF
This is not clear from the text of the Little Golden Book version, but the goats need to get to the other side of the bridge because there is nothing to eat on their current side. Perhaps if I’d looked at the pictures more carefully as a child I’d have noticed all the rocks on the left, contrasting with the healthy green growth on the right. But I just assumed the goats happened to be standing on a pile of rocks and that the greenish hue of the background was perfectly good grass.
The stakes were much higher than that.
Here is a page from a completely different version, illustrated by Paul Galdeone. “There was very little grass in the valley” offers a clear need in the text (as well as in the illustration.)
Notice these goats looking left. In the vast majority of Western picture books the main characters look right, encouraging the reader to look forward to what’s overleaf.
The three billy goats gruff have to cross the bridge. They’re not doing it for the adrenaline rush.
They desire food.
The troll under the bridge.
Trolls featured prominently in Norwegian myth and legend. They were originally believed to be actual supernatural beings who lived in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves. They lived together in small family units, and were rarely helpful to human beings. Later they became more concretized. They became more evil and although they were often ugly, it was also thought that trolls would walk among us, undetected. Like vampires, they have trouble with sunlight. I suppose this is why the troll in this fairytale lives under a bridge.
Roald Dahl was influenced by such mythology. You’ll find aspects of trolls in some of his stories (along with witches, of course). The Trunchbull of Matilda feels a bit troll-like in her one-sided badness and ugliness. So do The Twits.
One day the littlest Billy Goat Gruff said, “I cannot wait any longer. I am going t cross the bridge and eat the sweet, green grass.”
“We will come, too,” said his brothers. “We will be right behind you.”
This is the most problematic part of the retelling, because it always seemed to me that each goat genuinely attempted to sacrifice the older one in order to save himself. I feel the ‘plan’ should be made clearer here. These brothers are working together strategically rather than looking after self-interests.
“Then I am coming up to eat you!” the troll shouted. And he climbed onto the bridge.
Big Billy Goat Gruff was not afraid.
“I would like to see you try!” he said.
He rushed at the troll and butted him with his horns. The troll fell off the bridge and disappeared, leaving no trace.
Since trolls can’t be exposed to light, the simple act of coaxing the troll out from under the shade of the bridge may have been all that was needed!
For me this story failed, because I had no revelation. I was supposed to realise at the end that these goats had worked together. Instead I wondered why the older goats didn’t spend the rest of their lives holding grudges against the younger ones.
I was supposed to learn that working together can defeat evil.
After that the three Billy Goats Gruff crossed the bridge whenever they liked and ate their fill of sweet, green grass.
And the horrible, mean troll never bothered them again.
THE THREE FISHING BROTHERS GRUFF BY BEN GALBRAITH
Ben Galbraith is a Kiwi illustrator who says on his blog that he’s ‘quite colour blind’, which kind of backs up my theory that colour selection is far more scientific than successful artists like to make us think, and that it can be learned. (There are also tools to help artists out like Adobe Kuler and that picker thing you get in Illustrator etc.)
The art in this book is an appealing mixture of textures and collage. Sometimes this art style can look too digital, but it’s done well here. I like the humour of a boat called ‘the cod’s wallop’. If I had a boat I might call it that. The author is a keen fisherman, and this comes through in the story. The New Zealand way of speaking and its sea setting also comes through quite strong, and the issues about over-fishing aren’t specific to New Zealand, but remind me of the problems I see on any episode of Coast Watch. It was an inspired choice to set the story in ‘Bay of Plenty‘ and in ‘Poverty Bay‘, which are not only allegorical names but are actually real places.
With that, it feels somehow wrong to launch into a blog post about witch stories.
Which I usually love.
So let me first make a distinction between (1) real life hocus pocus which causes real harm to real women in various parts of the world, and (2) the witches of pure fantasy — the Wizard of Oz type characters around whom a good story is inevitable, since magical abilities lend much to a fantasy. There seems to be a third option in there: Some women are embracing Wicca as a lifestyle/religion and are perfectly okay with it. I consider this more like an interest in fortune telling and astrology than like the very serious supernatural fears in other and earlier cultures.
Good vs. Evil
Witch storylines, and that clear delineation between good and evil, are so solid that these storylines are still regularly used even when the thing in question isn’t actually your typical witch. It might be Smurfette, for example:
In the follow-up, we get a new origin story for Smurfette, voiced again by Katy Perry. You see, she’s a got a dark past and it is revealed that within her Smurfness resides some pretty Smurfin’ great power. And she must choose whether to use her Smurf-powers for the purposes of good, as Papa Smurf has taught her, or fall under the dark spell of the evil wizard Gargamel.
But There Aren’t All That Many Other Roles For Women (Outside Mother, Daughter, Sister)
Here’s a bit about witches, in a chapter about the limited roles of women, from Marjery Hourihan’s book Deconstructing The Hero:
The text book of the witch hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches’), the work of two German divines, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, was first published in 1486. Although there had been witch hunts in the earlier years of the fifteenth century it was this work, endorsed by Pope Innocent VIII, which fuelled the craze and established the definitive concept of the ‘witch’. It proclaimed magisterially that:
It must not be omitted that certain wicked women perverted by Satan and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of devils, believe and profess that they ride in the night hours on certain beasts with Diana, the heathen goddess, or with Herodias, and with a countless number of women, and that in the untimely silence of teh night they travel over great distances of land.
(Malleus Maleficarum, in Otten 1986:108)
Although the authors insist that the witches’ claims to fly and consort with Diana are ‘altogether false’ (p. 108), illusions perpetrated by Satan, the image persisted in the popular imagination, along with claims that witches had sexual intercourse with devils. One William West of the Inner Temple in a work called Symbolaeographic  said of witches that they:
shake the air with lightning and thunder, to cause Hail and tempests, to remove green corn and trees to an other place, to be carried of her familiar which hath taken upon him the deceitful shape of a goat, swine, or calf etc. into some mountain…And sometimes to fly upon a staff or fork, or some other instrument.
(Quoted in Bradbrook 1951)
Here is the witch of children’s literature, flying on her broomstick, casting spells, and accompanied by her black cat. It is her sexuality, her irrationality, her links with nature and with the powers of evil that make her the binary opposite of the hero in a range of traditional and modern stories. The power of satires and stereotypes is evident in the fact that during the two hundred years from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century in Europe and Britain thousands of women were tortured, burned or hanged as witches, and many thousands more were persecuted and brought to trial though they escaped execution.
The witch is a traditionally monstrous female character featured both in contemporary (adult) horror stories and in children’s fairy tales.
Children During The Witch Craze Were Not Sheltered From Witches In Their Stories
The illustration above is from an 1831 picture book of “The Three Bears” written by Eleanor Mure as a gift for her nephew. This is the first written version we have of that story. ‘Goldilocks’ was an old woman before she was a little girl.
Though witch burning was no longer happening in England in 1831, children were obviously schooled up on what witches were supposed to do and be. Their grandparents were certainly old enough to remember actual witch burnings, and grandparents have always passed stories down to their children.
How many young contemporary readers could look at that illustration and know that because the old woman floats, that means she’s a witch? Our witch trope has evolved over the 19th and 29th centuries, and continues to do so. Now, fictional witches are far more likely to be empowered.
Witches = Bad Mothers
Joseph Campbell argues that women were first attributed with magical powers because of their mysterious abilities to create life.
Barbara Creed argues that woman was perceived as the source of an especially powerful form of magic during pregnancy.
A woman’s curse was thought to be far more dangerous than a man’s. A mother’s curse meant certain death.
In the 14th century the Catholic church deemed witchcraft heresy. Services performed by witches, including midwifery, were labeled as crimes. Many of their crimes were allegedly sexual in nature. (Copulating with the devil, causing male impotence, stealing men’s penises etc.)
Women were thought to be less intelligent, less spiritual, more like children and therefore more prone to being witches.
A witch is antithetical to the symbolic order. She unsettles boundaries between the rational and irrational.
Evil witches are associated with abjection, cannibalism, castration — the embodiment of the ‘bad breast’.
Whenever woman is represented as monstrous it is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions.
The threat she exudes is usually related to consumption. She will threaten to devour her victims, consume or destroy them. (Metaphorical castration.) For example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel has cannibalistic desires. (The Grimms version is a much watered down of Wilhelm’s earlier one.) The food the witch gives the children is sweet and rich (standing in for breast milk.)
Lady Monsters Are Always Single
From witches to gorgons, the scary ladies of literature are usually dried up old spinsters. Or they’re single and sexual, but too sexual, and they’re going to use their womanly wiles to devour men whole. Or they’re going to prey on children, because any woman without children of her own is apparently a threat to the entire concept. Even the wicked stepmother only shows her true colors once her husband is out of the picture. What makes these ladies terrifying is not merely that they’re sharp-toothed or half-dead or evil, it’s that they’re living outside the cultural norm. A woman functioning without male supervision is, it seems, the scariest thing of all.
We may think that our fear of the traditional witch archetype is safely in the past, and yet single, older women in possession of cats are still fair game for public derision. Childless women and queer women and gender non-conforming people who have “failed” to “find a man” still face judgment for living outside of the norm. The dried up witch-woman and her sister, the sultry siren, are still alive, lurking around in the back of our minds, where they’ve managed to survive for the last several thousand years.
The literary home of the wicked witch is the fairy tale of which the simple story ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is typical. As in most hero tales the opposition between home and the wilderness, or the forest, is central but in this story home is not safe for the young hero and his sister because it is dominated by their wicked stepmother whose alter ego is the witch who lives in the forest. The children are abandoned in the forest because their stepmother insists there is not enough food to feed them, and after wandering for three days, facing death by starvation, they are led by a white bird to the house of the witch. This house is made of bread, cake and clear sugar, so they are able to satisfy their hunger. The witch takes them in, pretending to be loving and benevolent, a representative of the safe domestic world. She provides them with a delicious meal and comfortable beds but then reveals her true aim which is to eat them both. They eventually escape when Gretel is able to push the witch into the oven, and they fill their pockets with the jewels they find in the house. On their homeward journey they are assisted by a white duck who bears them across a river on her back, and they are finally welcomed by their father who had never been a willing participant in their abandonment. The stepmother has died, so father and children are able to live happily and prosperously on the proceeds of the jewels.
Hourihan points out the way in which Browne depicts the stepmother as a witch, with the dark gap between the curtains forming a witch’s hat for the stepmother’s shadow.
The story itself invites this conflation insofar as the deaths of the witch and the stepmother coincide and both try to bring about the children’s deaths. Like most fairy tales, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ has several layers of signficance, but the witch and her malevolence is crucial to all of them.
2. MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: THE WITCHES BY ROALD DAHL
When my standard one (year 3) teacher read this book to us I was sitting on the mat with all my classmates and I still remember the mischievous look on Mrs Baker’s face as she described what a witch looks like according to Roald Dahl: blue spit, gloves, square toes, an itchy scalp due to wearing a wig… “Who knows, maybe your teacher might even be a witch,” she read. I’m sure I wasn’t the only child at that moment scrutinising my teacher for signs of witchery. I concluded that she couldn’t be a witch, because our teacher didn’t wear gloves. She should totally have worn gloves that day, and eaten a blue gobstopper beforehand.
I read this book over and over again as a child and it only seemed to improve upon subsequent readings. I grew up before the film version, and when that came out of course it didn’t seem to live up to the story which had been playing in my head. So many people say this about film adaptations of their favourite stories, but I will acknowledge that the film is very well done. It just wasn’t my version of The Witches. In my head, the atmosphere is far more sinister and dark.
Looking back with my feminist-tinted glasses on, I really do wonder how Roald Dahl felt about women.
To change the topic entirely, I’m reminded of something said about a far more recent film with witches in it. Oz (2013) is not something I intend on paying good money to sit through — I have read too many negative reviews from people I trust — but one problem feminist reviewers have pointed out with the storyline is that in Oz, nobody knows who the witch is, and so therefore every woman is possibly a witch.
This very same thing could also be said about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The story scared the bejeesus out of me, in the most spine-chilling, delightful kind of way imaginable, but I DID go through several months of my childhood thinking that any slightly odd woman might be a witch, especially if she looked to be wearing a wig.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I’m still processing it.
3. PICTUREBOOK: ROOM ON THE BROOM BY JULIA DONALDSON
This is one of about five picturebooks which my four-year-old requests over and over again, and one of an even smaller select groups which I don’t mind reading. Julia Donaldson really is a master of craft when it comes to rhyme, repetition and cohesive storytelling. The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great.
4. ANIMATED FILM: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
It’s so wonderful that teams of Japanese men can produce kids’ films starring girl protagonists, based on a book about a girl — a book which was in turn written by a woman — without compromising their masculinity… or something. I know, I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but Hollywood really does have a lot it could learn from Studio Ghibli.
Kiki is a thirteen-year-old girl who sets off on her own to spend a year away from her parents learning the art of witchcraft. Like several others of the Studio Ghibli films (Porco Rosso springs to mind) this one is set in a Japanese inspired post-war sort of utopian village with bread shops and steam trains and dirigibles and attics, in which the characters kind of look Japanese but don’t bow to one another. So it’s set in an entirely fantastical alternative reality. Unlike Porco Rosso, Western audiences can enjoy this Japanese film without feeling as if we’re in a completely foreign land. At least, no more than the Japanese themselves would feel.
It must be tricky to convey adolescence in film. That’s my conclusion, because so often it’s done badly. I don’t think it’s helpful to pretend that adolescent kids are asexual, but Hollywood errs on the side of hypersexualisation when depicting characters still young enough to be enjoying their childhood. A romantic subplot is not always necessary. In this case, Kiki’s subplot is around the relationship between Kiki and the pregnant owner of the bread shop. (Another feminist triumph: a pregnant woman, pregnant just because people are sometimes pregnant, not because some harrowing birth scene is about to become important to the storyline.)
Even in American children’s films I really enjoy, such as Monster House and the producers feel compelled to include a love interest. This is almost always two boys — one the relatable protagonist, the other a friend who offers comedic lines and slapstick — with a girl arriving on the scene, in which case the comedian friend will fall haplessly in love with the girl, but the girl ends up with the protagonist.
When the girl is the protagonist, this tired old plot naturally takes a different turn. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, she makes a friend, who happens to be a boy, but his interest isn’t in Kiki per se — he has an existing passion of his own: turning his bicycle into a flying machine, and his interest in Kiki is because she is already able to fly, on her broomstick, and he feels he has something to learn. Boys jeer from the other side of the street, reading more into the relationship than exists, and it would be easy for audiences to do the same. If this were a Hollywood plot, the rather geeky boy would prove himself a man by eventually helping the strong female character out of difficulty. But in this case it’s Kiki who rescues the boy from falling. She is far better on her broomstick than he is in midair, and it’s only fitting that the girl helps the boy. For a non-Hollywoodified audience, this is satisfying, fitting and sufficient. I feel that both Kiki and Tombo (Japanese for ‘dragonfly’) are wonderful characters and that Tombo would make a great friend. That’s all we really need in the way of ‘romantic subplot’ in kids’ films. At the risk of overlapping with the fundamentalist Christian community, I feel that in films we should let kids be kids. Those who are looking for a romantic story will see the potential. Otherwise, we don’t need outward expressions of ‘whoas’ and ‘Ooh, she likes yous’ in a story for adolescent and pre-adolescent children. The resident four-year-old loves this film, and I’m just a little bit in love with it too.
See also my lengthy post about ParaNorman, which heavily features witches, linking them to young, intelligent, modern-day feminists.
In short, this is one of the best witch stories for children, because the witch is presented as a kind, well-rounded human being. A good antidote to the common trope.
MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA BY URSULA LE GUIN (1968)
I haven’t read this. According to Hourihan this story ‘conforms to the type in that she is dark-haired and deceitful, but she is a more subtle creation than most of her kind. The text hints that, although she has given herself tot he service of evil as a means to power, she has done so only because she can see no other way for a woman to achieve self-realization. All the wizards in Earthsea are men. Le Guin’s imaginary world is similar to mediaeval Europe in many ways including the exclusion of women from access to higher learning and Serret’s situation mirrors that of many actual women in former times who turned to witchcraft as the only source of knowledge accessible tot hem. Although women are marginalized in this tale, as in most hero stories, simplistic stereotyping is avoided, and the reader is invited to share the pity which the hero, Ged, the focalizing character, feels for Sereet’s lonely exile in her enchanted castle.
MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: I AM SUSANNAH BY LIBBY GLEESON (1987)
This book is showing its age, and will probably feel to the modern reader what it felt like reading The Pigman by Paul Zindel in 1992: Retro. This is not a story about a witch; rather it’s a good kicking-off point to start thinking about the witch archetype and how fiction can train us to regard a certain sort of woman (unmarried, grey, untamed hair, untidy clothing). This is an 80s feminist book with the message for adolescent girls that you don’t have to kiss boys at parties to be liked; you don’t have to get married. You can stay single and follow your artistic dreams if you like, and you won’t actually go mad.
Lilith is a female demonfrom Jewish mythology. She has her own opitins, passions and desires. She’s sexually dominant, unafraid to protect her interests and is the mother of all kinds of reatures which are dangerous because they are independent and free-thinking.
Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.
I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually […] I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see […] and one should know as much of it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.
— Paul Bowles, American expatriate composer, author, and translator
Myth can be considered a genre. It is the oldest genre and to this day is the most popular.
Myth is not a part of every story. Even Joseph Campbell himself said that there was no mythic structure to be found in 25% of stories.
Mythic form is enjoyed by audiences across cultures.
Myths are born of the sticky dark. That’s why the truest have survived thousands of years. They present fictional answers to primal questions: Why do tragic things happen? Which is stronger, love or death? What if death is just the beginning?
Originally, the Greeks invented myths which are now the foundation of Western thought. Even back then these were considered allegorical and metaphorical. In Greek myths, there were always at least two levels of beings: Gods and humans. The gods represented the aspect of man which was able to gain enlightenment/excellence. The gods did not necessarily rule the humans.
Consider the Greek gods ‘psychological models’ which represent character traits.
THE SYMBOLISM OF MYTH
Myths use a clearly prescribed set of symbolic objects. Original audiences always knew that these objects stood for something else. These objects also represent something within the hero. Even today, audiences will recognise these:
Journey = life path
Tree = tree of life
Underground = unexplored region of the self
and so on.
Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:
Although The Pilgram’s Progress is allegorical, it is impossible even for an adult to read about Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in any other way than as a story. The passages through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation, the fight with the monster Apollyon, the loss of Christian’s comrade Faithful in Vanity Fair, the crossing of the River of Death: these are actual and vivid events, as real in their own way as the mass of detail with which Defoe built up Robinson Crusoe. It may be noted that the themes of all these three books — the dangerous journey, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the desert island, as in Robinson Crusoe: and the miniature or other imaginary world, as in Gulliver — have served for innumerable later books, both children’s and adult, and are by no means worn out.
Superman/Spiderman/Batman etc – comic book stories are modern myth forms.
Dances With Wolves
The Lion King
Avatar – science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental human distinctions (human/robot etc.)
Thelma and Louise – a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure.
The African Queen – classic example of river as setting in a mythic story, along with Heart of Darkness
Beauty and the Beast
The Piano – myth blended with romance
Bringing Up Baby
Singin’ in the Rain
Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands
Sleepless in Seattle
True Grit – basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
Harry Potter – mixture of myth, fairytale and coming-of-age in a school story. Typically for heroes of myth stories, Harry is a foundling, abandoned by his parents and brought up by horrible people.
Le Week-end – a film written by Hanif Kureishi in which the journey takes the form of a romantic weekend away with the purpose of rekindling a failing marriage
Locke – a road trip with one on-screen character played by Tom Hardy. Extraordinarily well scripted, we really only see Tom Hardy sitting in his car. The opponents he meets on his journey come only in form of voices through his car phone. By the end of the journey he is in a different place both physically and spiritually.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore – an indie-film which provides an excellent example of modern use of mythic symbolism such as the labyrinth and the river. The backdrop is American suburbia. The main hero is a woman, though she is joined by a man. Interesting for its gender inversions.
Wildlike – a 14 year old girl is sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska one summer as her mother is receiving treatment for an illness. She is soon faced with the task of running away from the uncle and making her way back to Seattle. She meets various helpers and opponents along the way, and contributes to a grieving man’s character arc as he grieves for his own wife’s recent death.
Jolene – a 2008 film based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. A young orphan marries but in a Cinderella-like tragedy things don’t go well and she ends up on the road, meeting all sorts of people along the way, mostly horrible.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople — a New Zealand comedy drama about the relationship between a cranky man and a boy, who go bush, pursued by the police for suspected child abuse.
Then there are computer games, such as Halo and Red Dead Redemption.