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When my brothers and I were young my mother read to us constantly, everything from Hans Christian Anderson to Tolkien. Bless her, she gave us a love of reading and literature that has never left us. When she wasn't reading to us we were reading to ourselves, and we did a lot of it. We would often reread what my mother had read to us as we matured and our interpretations changed with our understanding of the world.
My personal problem was that I tended to think about stories long after my mother read them or I read one myself. I had one of those analytical minds that dug into subject matter in depth and whether they merited it or not. It can make for some serious and probably unnecessary frustrations in childhood. I liked things to make sense to me, which can be something of a problem with stories like the Grimm Fairy Tales, which not only sometimes don't make a lot of sense but also can be perfectly horrible and violent.
The first story I can remember feeling confused about was the tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. For those of you who have never heard of it or have forgotten it, I shall briefly summarize. Three Billy goat brothers of varying size live on a hill covered in sweet, green grass, which they like to romp around in and eat. Their hill is adjacent to another hill is also covered in grass, which, naturally, appears to be a lot greener and sweeter. They want to go to this hill but unfortunately, it is connected to their hill by a bridge under which there lives a big, nasty troll who wants to eat them. A big problem. They devise a plan to get to the other side. The Billy Goats Gruff go across the bridge one at a time starting with the smallest one and convince the troll that he wants to wait for the much bigger and fatter brother that is coming behind them. Using this device the smaller ones get across the bridge and the biggest one rams the troll with his horns right off the bridge, thereby ending his tyranny and, I assume, his life. Simple little story, right? The Billy Goats win, the troll dies and Bob's your uncle. Unfortunately, not so much for me.
As happy as I was that the Billy Goats Gruff got across the bridge safely and lived happily ever after, I had something of a problem with how the whole business was done. Why, I asked my little self, if the big Billy Goat Gruff knew that he had the where with all to take on the nasty troll, was it necessary to send his two smaller brothers first? Wasn't there a big risk in that strategy? Wasn't it possible that they might get eaten? I mean, how could they be certain that the troll would pass them up in order not to ruin his appetite for the big brother? Maybe the troll liked having an appetizer and a salad before his entrée. Wasn't it possible that he could have been hungry enough to eat all three of them? Was the biggest brothers just using his smaller siblings as a distraction? Was he going to wait until the troll was snacking on his younger brothers before he made his move? It just didn't make any sense to me. After all, the three Billy Goats Gruff seemed so close. It seemed impossible that the Big Billy Goat Gruff would be willing to risk his brothers becoming troll food in such a weak plan. It was a quandary and it plagued me for days after I first heard the story. I was an odd child.
I asked my mother about the problem and she just shook her head and said, “Adele, Adele, Adele. What am I going to do with you?” This response wasn't very helpful to me. After all, I wasn't the problem. It was that stupid plan that the Billy Goats Gruff came up with that was the problem. It just didn't appear to me to be a sound strategy. I finally resolved the question one night lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. It wasn't that the Big Billy Goat Gruff was heartlessly sacrificing his little brothers to the ravenous appetite of the troll. What he was doing was ensuring, as much as he possibly could, that even if he failed to take out the troll, his little brothers would be able to get across the bridge and live happily ever after gambling about and munching on the sweet, green grass on the other side. The Big Billy Goat Gruff was not a heartless fiend, he was a wonderful, altruistic big brother looking after his smaller siblings. I was deliriously happy that through careful analysis, I had been able to resolve the nonsense gaps in the story and have it all make perfect sense at last.
There is a moral to this story. Try not to over think things or you will drive yourself mad. Unfortunately, I never learned it and kept right on doing it with everything else I ever encountered that made no sense to me and, although I have probably driven myself into a form of benign insanity over the years since, that night I slept like a lamb. Or a satisfied Billy Goat Gruff resting in the sweet, green grass, anyway. Either works.
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