August 26, 2014

My Billy Goats Gruff

        Today I’m going to break down the various choices I made in my own illustration of the classic Norwegian folk tale The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  (If you’re not familiar with the story, or need a refresher in the details, you can read the original English translation here.  There are, of course, many variants, but this is the basis.)
        So, first of all, I was not illustrating a book, so I wanted to do a single image rather than a series of pictures of the various stages of the story.  And if I get only one image in which to convey the story, what goes into that image?  Probably the most obvious choice would be to pick one iconic moment from the plot, possibly either the set-up scene or the climax.  However, I like trying to design a single image in which you can read all the important elements, even if they don’t all appear at once in the chronology of the story.  So I knew I wanted to include in my design all three goats, the bridge, and the troll under it.
        Now for the details.  First, the entire motivation for the story is that the goats needed to cross the bridge to get to the grass on the other side, so I wanted to include that piece of the story.  I made one side of the bridge rocky and barren, and the other lush and deliciously grazeable.  Next, I figured that any troll living under a bridge should be at least semi-aquatic, so I gave him scales rather than the long hair you usually see on trolls.  (His appearance was influenced by some depictions of Japanese oni, just because I liked the look.)  I also gave him a gnawed bone, and put the skull of a former victim among the rocks, just to raise the stakes.
        A note here on black and white.  As I always tell kids when I’m explaining block print design, “Black shows only against white, and white shows only against black.”  I wanted the area under the bridge to be dark, and that meant the troll needed to be white.  (You can, of course, use outlines, but I think it looks better with more of a balance of black and white.)  And therefore, if the sky above the bridge is to be bright, the goats must be black.
        As for the Gruffs themselves, I wanted to show in my picture a hint of how each of them interacted with the troll.  The smallest goat is quite fearful and nervous, not sure whether he’s actually going to make it across until he reaches the other side safely.  The second goat holds his head up boldly, but steals a sidelong glance at the frightening troll below.  As for the biggest billy-goat Gruff, he’s already got his big horns lowered aggressively.
        That violent end to the story has been softened somewhat in many of the modern retellings, and that’s probably a good thing, since this isn’t one of those myths about confronting the depths of evil and darkness that life may hold.  Like many short folk tales, this is more of a fable, intended to illustrate a relatively simple point, not to be analyzed excessively.  It’s about the folly of greed, the ability of guile to conquer strength, and the danger of being a bully.  My favorite thing about the story, though, is the repetetive rhythm of the telling.  Trip trap, trip trap…  Who’s that tripping over my bridge?  In the version by Mary Finch  (illustrated by Roberta Arenson very differently with bold, technicolor collage) 
there's a great song:
     I’m a troll from a deep dark hole,
     My belly’s getting thinner,
     I need to eat - and goat’s a treat -
     So I’ll have you for my dinner!
When P and T were about four years old I would sing this in my deepest voice to a tune something like “Jack and Jill” or "Polly Wolly Doodle," and we all enjoyed it.  The kids even used it as the occasional request for a snack, lending just a bit of empathy for the troll, without detracting from our rooting for the goats, who of course were hungry, too.

[Pictures: The Three Billy Goats Gruff, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
Cover of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, collage by Roberta Arenson, 2007.]
Quotation from The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Mary Finch, 2007, Barefoot Books.


Ash said...

Hello Anne, I saw this illustration on 'Last Week Tonight with John Oliver' and went searching for the artist. So glad I was able to find you! I am especially fond of block prints and your work is just beautiful. I'm browsing through your website and loving everything I see.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Hello, Ash,
I'm glad you found me and thanks for saying hello!