3 Billy Goats Gruff
BASEBALL, GOATS, AND HOW A ONE-TIME SCHOOLBOY BULLY BECAME A FAMOUS TROLL.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff was always one of my favorite tales as a kid. I really don't know why. Perhaps the way in which the clever teamwork of the goats was able to outmanouver the stronger Troll, or maybe it's just the pure vengeance against the bully Troll.
However, I had a few problems with the story, even as a kid. In all the illustrated versions I saw, the Troll's bridge was only about 6 or 7 feet off the floor of the trench that separated the goats from the fresh grassy field. I could never figure out why they bothered with this bridge at all, as it always looked easy enough to just trott a few hundred yards away, especially if one is a goat. Also, the Troll's lifestyle looked awfully boring to me...just hanging around with nothing to do in his troll lair. No wonder he bullied the few creatures who came buy. Wouldn't you?
So, when Helen suggested I illustrate this book as my first picture book, and the editor David Fickling at Scholastic was enthusiastic about it, I got to work. I came across a photo in a Sunday magazine, where the actor John Thorne was standing next to a tethered pet goat with a baseball cap on his head. The hat lay so neatly upon the horns that the goat looked like he was born to wear a baseball cap. With three billy goats already frolicking in my head, this photo of the cap-wearing goat put the entire tale into the context of a team sport, specifically, baseball.
I was never any good at baseball. Moving to England made it even easier to shy away from even the most informal softball game at a cookout (I last played in 1986, Milton Academy faculty against the students...I got to first base but that was it). However, I'd always loved the trappings...Fenway Park in Boston, the ridiculous Edwardian uniforms, the clowny shoes, the Hammond organ, the guys selling hot dogs and popcorn in the stands...the whole thing. I also liked the way you had to run around in circles rather than defend and attack territory. For you Brit readers, there are a lot of things in baseball that happen in threes (just as there are in children's stories); three bases to run around to, nine innings (a multiple of three) and of course, three strikes, YER OUT! There's also that moment of climax when the wooden bat hits the ball with an almighty satisfying crack..it's probably the most exciting sound in the world, apart from breaking glass.
Now, that Troll, where did he come from? Fickling made me work hard to get him just right. I still have the faxes that went back and forth, where I'd send a sketch of a Troll to Fickling, and he'd send it back having drawn on a word balloon telling me, in the Troll's voice, why that particular Troll wouldn't make a good Troll for my book. After dozens of these, Fickling suggested I consider making the Troll sort of like a minotaur. He was onto something good, of course.
Only after I first drew mt final troll did I realize who that crunched up angry red face reminded me of: Mark H. Mark was the guy who used to beat me (and most everyone else) up after school.
Anyhow, last time I saw Mark in 1985, he owned his own bikeshop in our hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts. I was kitting up for a bike trip abroad, and buying a lot of it from his shop. He was really nice to me and treated me like a long-lost pal, and he gave me lots of stuff for free. I couldn't believe it!
I had to ask him before I left, sort of kidding on, was he being so nice to me to make up for beating me up after school. "Did I used to beat you up after school?" he asked incredulously. "I don't remember that! You know, another guy came in here a while ago and said the same thing, and I don't remember beating him up either!" And he looked like he meant it.
Well, anyhow, I was happy with all the free stuff, and genuinely pleased to see Mark doing well with his bike shop. Then the phone rang. It was some supplier he was having trouble with, and I reckon he was fed up with some problem and wanted to put the pressure on this guy. But when he was swearing down the phone, there it was....the same red face and the terrifying scowl that I remembered as a kid! So I left the shop with a whole lot of free bike stuff and refreshed unconscious inspiration for my Troll years later.
In November 2001, I received an email from someone who alerted me about a court case involving an alleged assault against a youth hockey referee (who is also a policeman) by a coach with the same name as Mark H (I used to have his last name on this page, but I decided after 8 years online to give the guy a break). It turns out to be the same Mark H as the one-time schoolboy bully who unconsciously inspired the Troll in my version of 3 Billy Goats Gruff.
I originally posted the Troll story because I thought it might interest children who are bullied as well as the bullies themselves. What you do and what is done to you as a child has a long-reaching effect, some of which are quite unpredictable.
But in February 2002, I received an email from a friend of Mark who felt things were getting out of control with so many people now reading about the Troll he inpired, and using the story of his childhood behaviour as an unfair reflection of his character as an adult.
It is important for the surfing public to realize that this story was posted on the Net long before the court case, and was not intended to kick a guy when he's down (although this was, in fact, a favourite trick of the one-time schoolboy bully).
However, I admit that I felt I owed it to that little boy I once was, running home sobbing for his mummy after being beaten and humiliated, to allow myself to enjoy a tiny frisson of schaudenfreud over the whole incident. No hard feelings between me and Mark, mind you, but if you're a little kid being bullied, maybe you'll feel better knowing that Big Billy Goat Gruff eventually came along, albeit 30 years later...
...but the time has come to completely forgive Mark H's childhood misdeeds and let this story fade away into folklore.
PS: In 2002, the court found Mark H guilty (assault), and he received a fine from the court and was put on probation.