A Story From: Sweden
Read Time: ["10 to 15mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.

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William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

Once in Sweden a fairy was riding a coach drawn by three golden goats, when suddenly her goats escaped into the fields. Luckily three farmhands – Jens, Mats and Thor – caught them as they dashed by.

“What amazing goats,” said the farmhands, stroking the thick, lustrous golden fleece of the goats. “Whoever owns them will surely want them back.”

When the fairy arrived she was indeed glad to see her goats had been safely caught. She said, “To thank you for catching them, you may keep my goats. But beware – you can see they are frisky animals. When they escape they’ll come home to be with my other goats and then you will have a hard time telling which one is yours.”

Jens, Mats, and Thor could hardly believe their luck. By sheering the goats’ luxurious golden fleece and selling it, they would surely become rich! As soon as the fairy disappeared into the woods, they quit their jobs and returned to their parent’s homes. Mindful of the fairy’s warning, Jens branded his goat with tar behind the left ear. Mats branded his with tar between the goat’s horns, and Thor branded his animal under the long chin whiskers. Of course they had to consider how to keep the prize animals from running away. Jens and Mats tied a rope around the necks of their goats with five long ends each and hired workmen to hold each end of rope all night while the goats slept and during the day while they grazed in the pasture. Thor, however, preferred to watch his goat himself.

As they expected, bundles of golden fleece sold for a high price indeed. Soon the young men were richer than their wildest dreams. They dressed in fine clothes and built palaces for themselves. They started to call themselves Lord Jens and Lord Mats.

Of course, Thor built himself a palace just as the others had, and he lived and dressed well. Still, he clipped and cared for the goat himself, leading the animal with him wherever he went, petting and talking to him. Finally, the goat became so tame that he didn’t need a leash anymore, and followed Thor like a dog, coming when he whistled. Thor was even allowed to ride on the goat’s back, and they took long trips together.

One day, when Thor sheared a large chunk of golden fleece, he thought it would be better yet if he could wind it into yarn and sell the ball of yarn at the marketplace. So he placed the fleece on the goat’s horn, pulled it across his head and began to twist it. The goat watched the thread grow longer and longer. Suddenly the goat jerked his neck to tighten and stretch it. Thor might as well have had another person helping him, so well did it go.

When the length of yarn was ready, Thor wound the yarn on the goat’s horn. And the goat moved his head from side to side, just as a person helping someone wind yarn would do. Soon Thor had large balls of golden yarn, which brought a far better price than the golden fleece. Thor became known far and wide for his wealth and his generosity in sharing his riches with the needy. Lord Jens and Lord Mats laughingly called him The Goatherd, since he still stooped to the common task of caring for the goat himself.

One morning, a terrible cry shattered the early morning hours. One of the stable boys had fallen asleep, and the goat belonging to Lord Jens had escaped! Tearing his hair and running frantically around, Lord Jens moaned the loss of his prize animal. Finally he slung a knapsack behind his back, set off to find the fairy, and after a long search he found her castle deep in the woods on a hilltop.

“Ah, welcome,” said the fairy with a smile. “I though you’d be here soon, since your goat rejoined us a while ago. Now as I said before, you’re welcome to your goat if you can identify him. But if you cannot, things will not go well for you. Do you care to look at the stalls?”

“Of course,” said Lord Jens with confidence, remembering the tar he had carefully placed behind the left ear. Each goat was in a stall with walls and floors of marble, and he went from stall to stall, examining each golden goat in turn. Yet none had the mark behind the left ear.

“Oh I wouldn’t look for any marks or brands,” said the fairy, laughing. “All the goats bathe in my crystal clear stream, and all marks are instantly washed away.”

Lord Jens groaned. Golden goats looked exactly alike! Yet one of them must be his! He grabbed one that could have been his goat. Though it resisted, he pulled it away until it was bound to leave its stall. Then with a quick motion the goat broke away from Jens’ grasp, and with its horns butted him so hard he was thrown out the door, where he rolled and rolled down the hill.

When Lord Jens returned to the village, he found Lord Mats in the same sorry state he had been in before. The workmen hired by Mats had been frightened by a bear rushing out of the woods and they, too, had dropped the ropes and had allowed the goat to escape.

“You’ll never find your goat,” grumbled Jens. He tried to tell Mats it was hopeless to find his goat from all the rest, but Mats would have none of that, remembering the brand he had put between the goat’s horns. And Mats, too, slung a knapsack on his back and set out to find the fairy’s castle.

When Mats arrived all the goats looked exactly the same to him. He, too, was butted out the door, rolled down the hill, and he returned to the village with his head hung low.

Before you think that Thor kept his goat without any problems, you should know that not long after that, a lightning storm struck and a flash of lightening frightened Thor’s goat and it also ran away. Thor set out to find his goat and came to the fairy’s castle. When the fairy told him that all brands and marks disappeared when the goats bathed in the crystal clear stream, Thor wasn’t worried. “Surely my goat will recognize me,” he thought.

But when he slowly passed each stall the fairy laughed and said, “Goats do not have long memories, I’m afraid.” Thor felt sad. None of the goats seemed to know him. Could it be that his goat had forgotten all the fine times they had shared together?

“Well, at least may I clip a lock from each goat?” he asked the fairy. “One of the locks will have to be from my goat, and I’ll have that as a remembrance.”

“Why not?” said the fairy, and Thor clipped a small lock from each goat. To make the pile easier to handle, Thor tied the fleece to a pump handle and began to twist the yarn into thread. He pulled and twisted, pulled and twisted, as he had done so many times before. One of the goats leaned forward, watching. Suddenly the animal stepped out of his stall, stuck both horns into the wood on the pump handle and began to jerk and pull, stretching the thread. Thor looked up.

“My goat! My golden goat!” he cried in delight. And so Thor and his goat were reunited. They returned to the village and lived happily ever after.




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This folk tale from Sweden is retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2005. All rights reserved.

A version of the story can also be found in The Diamond Bird by Anna Wahlenberg (Doubleday & Company Inc., New York 1969) pp. 111-119.