By Bob Litton
I deserted my once favorite café, where I used to sit and watch the Amtrak trains halt and some of their passengers disembark for a chance to stretch and gaze at the strange surroundings while the crew-change proceeded. (See my blog post of May 14, 2015 [initially published in September of 2013]). I ceased going there because three of my favorite waitresses had quit. It was an act of protest, on my part at least.
I started roosting at a café near the university, where the waitresses are most affectionate. I don’t know why they treat me so royally, since I have an unbreakable habit of constantly teasing them. I simply cannot stop. This new roost is not as decorative as the other one and is really quite noisy inside. The noise results from some regulars, the sound of whose loud conversations is magnified by cinder tile walls and rubber tile flooring. A TV tuned to a sports or a news channel, and a radio playing in the kitchen, contribute their own shares to the hubbub.
After several months of bearing up under that, I began last week to sit at one of three small tables on the porch outside. One drawback to the porch is that the railroad track is a little further away, to the south, and is largely blocked from view by some buildings and trees across the highway. I can still see part of one train car but no passengers. However, it is generally quieter on the porch, except on the weekends, when tourists and other types descend and sometimes overflow onto MY porch.
Recently, a couple about my age, whom I really like, parked in the area out front and approached. When they arrived at the porch, the woman smiled and asked, “Are you guarding the door?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I am charging a toll to enter. I am a troll charging a toll, but I’ll let you pass on in, gratis.”
After my acquaintances went inside, I pondered my potential as a troll—actually playing the part. Of course, for me to do so would require some heavy-duty facial makeup and deflation of my normally poetic vocabulary, for trolls are noted for their ugliness and stupidity; and I am noted for just the opposite: I might even have to change my name.
Then it struck me that, actually, I remembered very little about trolls, only vaguely recalling that they hung around bridges and accosted passersby. I wondered where they originated and in how many fairy tales they were characters.
When I got home, I checked them out on Wikipedia, where I discovered that the first known story of the troll was in “Three Billy Goats Gruff”: one of the stories collected by Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe between 1841 and 1844. There have been successive variations on the story, but the classic tale has each of the first two goats, in turn, persuading the stupid but hungry troll to wait for the next goat, which will be larger and thus more filling than they; and the third goat is large and stout enough to butt the troll off the bridge and into the river. The troll survives, but he doesn’t bother anyone after that.
In my estimation, the most amusing of the variants cited by Wikipedia is that found in the children’s book Timakistan by Andri Snær Magnason, summarized as follows:
The variant features a kid, its mother, and her husband. When the mother goat tells the troll to eat her husband instead of her, “the troll lost his appetite. ‘What’s the world coming to?’ he cried. ‘The kid tells me to eat its mother, and she tells me to eat her husband! Crazy family!’ The troll goes home leaving the goats uneaten.
I suppose this version appeals to me because it resonates with the current state of society—both political and cultural. Children and, by extension, we adults are supposed to extract lessons for living from such a tale. So, what have we here? The first—and most obvious—moral we can note is: In order to drive away hucksters and muggers, act like you are crazy; better yet, become crazy!
But there is more to be said about the goats and the troll.
First of all, I never did get the intent of the adjective “gruff” as applied in this story. According to the dictionary, “gruff” has two meanings: (1) abrupt or taciturn in demeanor; and (2) of a voice, low and rough in pitch. I suppose one could turn aside an accosting character with such a tone, but it seems to me more likely that the smaller goats would have employed more pathetic, smarmy tones. The persona of a lobbyist would be most apropos.
But the more important element here is the wiliness of the smaller goats, who deflect the troll by sic’ing him onto the next goat. If the goats do not have such a plan, however, then all we can assume is that the first two are treacherous, for the troll might have been able to capture and eat the second goat, at least.
As for the troll, he might be stupid but only to a degree. Why should he go to all the trouble and possible injury in overpowering a smaller goat, which may not in fact satiate his hunger, when he could venture all on a late arrival that surely will come the closest to filling his belly? He just didn’t foresee how mean and tough a grown billy goat can be. Moreover, Magnason, in his version, has granted the troll some amount of morality.
Well, dear reader, I have to go now. I must dig up something else to wonder about. But, before I leave, what does the tale of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” say to you about life, about people?