An Irish saint named Columba (or Columcille in his native language) is said to have confronted and rebuked Loch Ness Monster for killing and attempting to eat an unfortunate Pict. The saint was in Scotland at the time because he had managed to get himself exiled from Ireland by instigating a small war.
The trouble began with what has been called the first copyright disagreement. Columcille, founder and abbot of several Irish Abbys, learned that another Abbot, Finian, owned a beautiful Psalter, a book of the psalms used in worship. Since such books were exceedingly rare, Columcille asked for the privilege of making his own copy. Finian, for reasons that are not clear, refused. So Columcille, while visiting Finian’s Abby, crept into the scriptorium, one night. Working not by lamp light but by the supernatural glow of his own fingers, he managed a complete copy of the Psalter, a task that usually took many years and many copyists. (See the Book of Kells.)
When Finian learned what had happened, he claimed ownership of the copy. Columcille refused and the two abbots took their disagreement to the High King who responded with the first known example of copyright law: “To every cow belongs its calf, to every book its copy.”
Columcille turned to his royal relatives for assistance, one thing led to another, and 3,000 men were killed in subsequent battle. Columcille, either struck by his own conscience or at the urging of his fellow Abbots, decided to go to Scotland and convert the Picts. (Those were the people who painted themselves blue before going to war.
None of this sounds the least bit saintly. My efforts to turn the life of Saint Columba into a historical novel taught me one important lesson: a story, written fiction or an oral folktale, must have a genuine connection to its own time and place as well as making sense to the contemporary reader/listener. If I had attempted to make Columcille into a saintly plaster figure, there would have been no story.
To demonstrate, I am applying the same process of understanding to one of the simplest and best-loved Norwegian folktales. In case you missed the story, here it is
Winter has ended , the fresh green grass is poking through the snow in the high meadow and three billy goats, all named gruff, prepare to leave the farmhouse where they spent the winter. The smallest goes first, running down the trail and across the bridge over the stream. The sound of his hooves alerts the troll under that bridge: “Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?”
The smallest Billy Goat Gruff identifies himself and says “I am going up into the high meadows to eat the sweet green grass.”
The troll replies “Oh, no you’re not. For I am coming to eat you up.”
The little trickster goat suggests that the troll wait for his brother who is much bigger and would make a more satisfactory meal.
The troll sends the goat on his way and the whole scene is repeated with the next goat.
This brings us to the biggest Billy Goat Gruff, who replies to the threat by saying, “Come along then, for I have upon my head two spears and I will poke your eyeballs out your ears. I have as well two milling stones and I will crush you to bits body and bones!”
Which the goat proceeds to do, as soon as the troll emerges from under the bridge.
As a young man once said in a class where I was telling stories: “That is a very violent story.”
He wasn’t wrong. The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a very violent story just like Columcille was a very unsaintly saint. Where truly understanding Columcille’s antics required me to look at Irish monasticism in a new way, truly understanding the violence in the Three Billy Goats Gruff means connecting the folktale with its mythological roots.
This connection is not my own idea. I found it in George Webbe Dasent’s preface to his English translation of Asbjórnson and Moe’s
The story goes all the way back to the Norse creation story, where Ódinn and his brothers killed Ymir, the forefather of all the frost giants, and used his body parts to build the world. The few giants who survived the flood of Ymir’s blood swore to avenge his death, which began the feud between the giants and the Norse gods.
The frost giants were not merely being cranky. The concept of a revenge-based society was very common in Germanic cultures. You kill my brother and I don’t call the cops. I just kill you in return, but then your brother kills me and my son kills … it gets messy in a hurry.
So the giants were all about trying to kill the gods and the gods were all about killing the giants before they could kill the gods (even though everybody knew that gods and giants would all die in the end). And Ódinn’s son Thor was the gods’ primary giant-killer. That’s what his hammer was all about.
Eventually Christianity arrived in the North and the believers in the old gods faded away. For some time the followers of Thor, who was known to protect the common man worshipped Christ while on land but turned back to Thor while at sea where it was really dangerous!. But traces of the old myths remained in folktales, at least according to what George Webbe Dasent wrote in his preface to his translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s Popular Tales from the Norse into English. Webbe points out that those three goats have a direct connection to Thor. The first two billy goats are the story-descendants of the pair of goats who accompanied Thor on many of his adventures. The biggest Billy Goat Gruff, is Thor.
In the world of this story the troll has a deep rooted duty to kill the goats. And the biggest billy goat gruff has an equal duty to kill the troll. That violence is embedded in the roots of the story. Now I did not need to go into a historical exploration of the relationship between the Abbots of Celtic Christianity and the political situation in Ireland in the 6th Century. Nor do I need to go into a mythological/social discussion of the background ofT Three Billy Goats as I tell it.
What my understanding does helps me stay away from the trap of twisting the whole story out of shape in order to meet contemporary expectations. So, as I worked with Columcille, I saw him as a man who did feel responsible for all those deaths, but not one who was willing to give up his political/kingdom-building mindset. And when I tell the Billy Goats Gruff, I remember that the Troll was not angry because the goats disturbed him. He was not simply hungry, he was the goats’ bone-deep enemy.