Sunday, June 11, 2006


A troll is a fearsome member of a mythical anthropomorph race from Scandinavian folklore. Their role ranges from fiendish giants – similar to the ogres of English fairy tales – to a devious, more human-like folk of the wilderness, living underground in hills or mounds, inclined to thieving and the abduction of humans which, in the case of infant abductees, was substituted with a changeling. Trolls could also be known as hill-folk or mound-folk (huldrefolk) or in Swedish sometimes rån. In Shetland and Orkney tales, trolls are called trowe, adopted from the Norse language when these islands were settled by Vikings.

Nordic literature, art and music from the romantic era and onwards has adapted trolls in various manners – often in the form of an aboriginal race, endowed with oversized ears and noses. From here, as well as from Scandinavian fairy tales such as Three Billy Goats Gruff, trolls have achieved international recognition, and in modern fantasy literature and role-playing games, trolls are featured to the extent of being stock characters.

Trolls in Scandinavian folklore

A troll woman meets a man in the forest. She looks like a young farmer woman, but her tail is peeking out under her skirt. From Svenska folksägner (1882).
A troll woman meets a man in the forest. She looks like a young farmer woman, but her tail is peeking out under her skirt. From Svenska folksägner (1882).
Stones with roughly man-like features could be explained by folklore as trolls petrified by sunlight or curses. This one can be seen on Hamarøy, Norway.
Stones with roughly man-like features could be explained by folklore as trolls petrified by sunlight or curses. This one can be seen on Hamarøy, Norway.

The meaning of the word troll is uncertain. It might have had the originally meaning of supernatural or magical with an overlay of malignant and perilous. Another likely suggestion is that it means "someone who behaves violently". In old Swedish law, trolleri was a particular kind of magic intended to do harm. It should be noted that North Germanic terms such as trolldom (witchcraft) and trolla/trylle (perform magic tricks) does not imply any connection with the mythical beings. Moreover, in the sources for Norse mythology, troll can signify any uncanny being, including but not restricted to the Norse giants (jötnar).

In Skáldskaparmál, the poet Bragi Boddason encounters a troll-woman who hails him with this verse:

Troll kalla mik
tungl sjötrungnis,
auðsug jötuns,
élsólar böl,
vilsinn völu,
vörð náfjarðar,
hvélsvelg himins –
hvat's troll nema þat? [1]
They call me Troll;
Gnawer of the Moon,
Giant of the Gale-blasts,
Curse of the rain-hall,
Companion of the Sibyl,
Nightroaming hag,
Swallower of the loaf of heaven.
What is a Troll but that? [2]

The ambiguous original sense of the word troll appears to have lived on for some time after the Old Norse literature was documented. This can be seen in terms such as sjötrollet (the sea troll) as a synonym for havsmannen (the sea man) – a protective spirit of the sea and a sort of male counterpart to the female sjörå (see huldra).

There are many places in Scandinavia that are named after trolls, such as the Swedish town Trollhättan (Troll's bonnet) and the legendary mountain Trollkyrka (Troll church).

Gradually, we can discern the forming of two main traditions regarding the use of troll. In the first tradition, the troll is large, brutish and a direct descendant from the Norse jötnar. They are often described as ugly or having beastly features like tusks or cyclopic eyes. This is the tradition which has come to dominate fairy tales and legends (see below), but it is also the prominent concept of troll in Norway. As a rule of thumb, what would be called a "troll" in Norway would in Denmark and Sweden be a "giant" (jætte or jätte, derived from jötunn).

In some Norwegian accounts, such as the middle age ballade Åsmund Frægdegjevar [3], the trolls live in a far northern land called Trollebotten – the concept and location of which seems to coincide with the Old Norse Jötunheimr.

The second tradition is most prominent in southern Scandinavia. Reversely, what would be called trolls in southern Sweden and Denmark would be called huldrefolk in Norway and vitterfolk in northern Sweden (see wight). The south-Scandinavian term probably originate in a generalization of the terms haugtrold (mound-troll) or bergtroll (mountain-troll), as trolls in this tradition are residents of the underground.

These trolls are very human-like in appearance. Sometimes they had a tail hidden in their clothing, but even that is not a definite. A frequent way of telling a human-looking troll in folklore is instead to look at what it is wearing: Troll women in particular were often too elegantly dressed to be human women moving around in the forest.

More often than not, though, the trolls kept themselves invisible, and then they could travel on the winds, such as the wind-troll Ysätters-Kajsa, or sneak into human homes. Sometimes you could only hear them speak, shout and make noise, or the sound of their cattle. Similarly, if you were out in the forest and smelled food cooking, you knew you were near a troll dwelling. The trolls were also great shapshifters, taking shapes of objects like fallen logs or animals like cats and dogs. A fairly frequent notion is that the trolls liked to appear as rolling balls of yarn.

Whereas the large, ogrish trolls often appear as a solitary being, the "small" trolls were thought to be social beings who lived together, much like humans except out in the forest. They kept animals, cooked and baked, were excellent at crafts and held great feasts. Like many other species in Scandinavian folklore, they were said to reside in underground complexes, accessible from underneath large boulders in the forests or in the mountains. These boulders could be raised upon pillars of gold. In their living quarters, they hoard gold and treasures. Opinion varied as to whether or not the trolls were thoroughly bad or not, but often they treated people as they were treated. Trolls could cause great harm if vindictive or playful, though, and regardless of other things they were always heathen. Trolls were also great thieves, and liked to steal from the food that the farmers had stored. They could enter the homes invisibly during feasts and eat from the plates so that there was not enough food, or spoil the making of beer and bread so that it failed or did not end up plentiful enough.

The trolls sometimes abducted people to live as slaves or at least prisoners among them. These poor souls were known as bergtagna ("those taken to/by the mountain"), which also is the Scandinavian word for having been spirited away. To be bergtagen does not only refer to the disappearance of the person, but also that upon returning, he or she has been struck with insanity or apathy caused by the trolls. Anyone could be taken by the trolls, even cattle, but at the greatest risk were women who had given birth but not yet been taken back to the church.

Occasionally, the trolls would even steal a new-born baby, leaving their own offspring – a (bort)byting ("changeling") – in return.

To ward off the trolls you could always trust in Christianity: Church bells, a cross or even words like "Jesus" or "Christ" would work against them. Like other Scandinavian folklore creatures they also feared steel. Apart from that they were hunted by Thor, one of the last remnants of the old Norse mythology, who threw Mjolnir, his hammer, causing lightning bolts to kill them. Though Mjolnir was supposed to return to Thor after throwing, these hammers could later be found in the earth (actually Stone Age axes) and be used as protective talismans.

Fairytales and legends

While the everyday folklore consisted mostly of short anecdotes describing things that had (supposedly) happened to local people, fairytales are narratives that rarely claim to be true in the same way. Many of the fairytales featuring trolls were written in the late 19th century to early 20th century, reflecting the romanticism of the time, and published in fairytale collections like Tomtar och Troll. These tales, and illustrations by artists like John Bauer and Theodor Kittelsen, would come to form the ideas most people have of trolls today.

Legends from the middle ages and earlier also feature a kind of trolls of more horrifying dimensions. This might reflect a past view of trolls as distinctly bad creatures that would soften in later folklore (see the above), or just be another example of fantastic tales demanding fantastic dimensions.

In fairytales and legends trolls are less the people living next to humans and more frightening creatures. Particularly in these tales they come in any size and can be as huge as giants or as small as dwarves. They are often regarded as having poor intellect (especially the males, whereas the females, trollkonor, may be quite cunning), great strength, big noses, long arms, and as being hairy and not very beautiful (Once again, females often constitute the exception, with female trolls frequently being quite comely). In Scandinavian fairy tales trolls sometimes turn to stone if exposed to sunlight.

Asbjørnsen and Moe's collection feature a number of traditional fairy tales where trolls hold princesses captive, such as The Three Princesses of Whiteland and Dapplegrim, and two where trolls invade homes on Christmas Eve to make merry, Tatterhood and The Cat on the Dovrefell.

The following excerpts from the Danish Ballad of Eline of Villenskov describe the physical aspects of trolls within Scandinavian mythology:

There were seven and a hundred Trolls,
They were both ugly and grim,
A visit they would the farmer make,
Both eat and drink with him.
Out then spake the tinyest Troll,
No bigger than an emmet was he,
Hither is come a Christian man,
And manage him will I surelie.

Origin of the myth

In the genre of paleofiction, the distinguished Swedish-speaking Finnish paleontologist Björn Kurtén has entertained the theory (e.g. in Dance of the Tiger) that trolls are a distant memory of an encounter with Neanderthals by our Cro-Magnon ancestors some 40,000 years ago during their migration into northern Europe. Spanish paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga provides evidence for these types of encounters in his book, The Neanderthal's Necklace. The theory that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons occupied the same area of Europe at the same time in history has been theorized based on fossil evidence. Other researchers believe that they just refer to neighboring tribes. The problem with this theory is that neither Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons existed in this part of Europe during the ice-age. Most of Scandinavia was covered by a large glacier and the area was not occupied until much later.

A more plausible explanation for the troll myth, is that the trolls represent the remains of the forefather-cult which was ubiquitous in Scandinavia until the introduction of Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries. In this cult the forefathers were worshipped in sacred groves, by altars or by gravemounds. One of the customs associated with this practice was to sit on top of a gravemound at night, possibly in order to make contact with the deceased. With the introduction of Christianity however, the religious elite sought to demonize the pagan cult, and declared the forefathers as evil. For instance, according to Magnus Håkonsen's laws from 1276 it is illegal to attempt to wake the "mound-dwellwers". It is in these laws that the word troll appears for the first time, denoting something heathen and generally unfavourable.

Trolls in Nordic art, music and literature

Edvard Grieg, the most important Norwegian composer of the later 19th century, wrote several pieces on trolls, including a score based on Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, with the famous In the Hall of the Mountain King, and March Of The Trolls. Regarding his motivations, Grieg wrote: "The peculiar in life was what made me wild and mad...dwarf power and untamed wildness...audacious and bizarre fantasy." Grieg's former home, Troldhaugen ("The Troll's Hill"), is now a museum. [4][5]

Like Grieg, conductor Johan Halvorsen was a nationalist Norwegian composer. He wrote, The Princess and the Giant Troll, The Trolls enter the Blue Mountain, and Dance of the Little Trolls.

Geirr Tveitt was heavily influenced by Grieg's romanticism and cultural exploration of Scandinavian folklore and Norwegian folk-music. Tveitt's Troll Tunes, includes works such as Troll-Tuned Hardanger Fiddle, and The Boy With The Troll-Treasure. Tragically, 80% of Tveitt's oeuvre was destroyed in a fire.

In Swedish children's literature, trolls are not naturally evil, but primitive and misunderstood. Their misdeeds are due to a combination of basic and common human traits, such as envy, pride, greed, naïveté, ignorance and stupidity. In some early 20th century fairy tales, by Elsa Beskow, trolls are also depicted as an aboriginal race of hunters and gatherers who are fleeing the encroaching human civilisation. Where man makes a road, the trolls disappear.

Young Scandinavian children usually understand the concept of trolls, and a way to teach children to brush their teeth is to tell them to get rid of the very small "tooth trolls" that otherwise will make holes in their teeth. This is a pedagogic device used to explain bacteria by the Norwegian author Thorbjørn Egner in his story Karius and Baktus.

The Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson has reached a world-wide audience with her Moomintrolls.

There is some speculation that the famous story Rumpelstiltskin originated from a troll folk tale which bears many similarities. While the original story of the troll involves a preacher contracting a troll to build a church as opposed to a woman needing to spin straw into gold, the central element of a bargain which is satisfied by guessing the name of the involved party, and the subsequent death of the troll or being whose name is guessed is central to both stories.

Troll Dolls

Troll Dolls became one of America's biggest toy fads beginning in the fall of 1963 and lasting throughout 1965. With their brightly colored hair and cute faces, they were found in stores everywhere in America. They were featured in both Life Magazine and Time Magazine in 1964 in articles which commented on the "good luck" they would bring to their owners.

Trolls became fads again in brief periods throughout the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's --with as many as ten different manufacturers at any given time creating them.

Originally created in 1959 by Danish Woodcutter Thomas Dam, the dolls became popular in a few European countries in the early 1960's, right before they were introduced in America. The originals, also called "Dam Dolls," were of the highest quality featuring sheep wool hair and glass eyes. Their sudden popularity, along with an error made in the (C)Copyright notice of Thomas Dam's original product, resulted in cheaper imitations and knock-offs which flooded the American market. Also known as "Wishniks," " Treasure Trolls," "Norfins" and other tradenames, it was not until 2003 that a Congressional law allowed the Dam family of Denmark to restore their original American copyright and become the only official manufacturer once again.

Many people collect trolls, with the originals maintaining the highest value. Some collectors have thousands of troll dolls ranging in size from gumball machine prizes to over one foot tall.

They were prominently featured on the TV sitcom The Drew Carey Show, where one of the characters, Drew's nemesis Mimi, collected them and kept them on her desk at work (with numerous jokes from Drew comparing Mimi herself to a troll). A troll doll is also featured in the film Toy Story but does not talk or play a significant role, again due to questions at the time regarding the doll's "public domain" status which eventually would revert to ownership by the Dam family.

In the 90's, several attempts were made to market the concept to young boys, including the Troll Warriors, Battle Trolls, and Stone Protectors. None were very successful.

American trolls

"The Troll." A statue under the north end of the Aurora Bridge in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, USA.
"The Troll." A statue under the north end of the Aurora Bridge in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, USA.

Scandinavian folk-tales involving trolls such as "Three Billy Goats Gruff" are familiar to other European and European-derived cultures. In the US and Canada, the old belief in trolls is parallelled by a modern belief in Bigfoot and Sasquatch. Many statues of trolls adorn the downtown business district of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, leading to the town being dubbed The Troll Capital. There is also a neighborhood on the northeast side of Fargo, North Dakota which is named Trollwood.

In the David the Gnome animation series, trolls persecute gnomes.

In the TV mini-series The 10th Kingdom, trolls are the ruling race of the 3rd kingdom, having large pointy ears and noses, wild hair, poor intelligence and a love of shoes and leather.

Residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, known as Yoopers, refer to their lower-peninsula counterparts as "trolls," because they live "Under the Bridge" (Referring to the Mackinac Bridge.)

Modern fantasy trolls

In literature

In J. R. R. Tolkien's world of Middle-earth, trolls are very large (around 12 feet tall) and immensely strong humanoids of poor intellect, originally created by Morgoth from corrupted and mutilated Ents. They are divided into many kinds: hill trolls, mountain trolls, forest trolls, snow trolls, cave trolls and stone trolls, all of which turn to stone when exposed to sunlight. Although many of the various types are described, the only ones encountered by the characters are three hill trolls, (by Bilbo) and a cave troll by the Fellowship in Moria. In The Lord of the Rings, a new breed appears, called the Olog-hai, or black trolls. Unlike the old trolls, they are capable of movement under sunlight.

In the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, trolls are large creatures who are composed of, and eat, rock. They have a cultural tendency towards violence, and their intelligence is inversely proportional to the temperature, making them quite unintelligent in warm climates. Their size increases with age, from pebbles to mountains. They have had a bad reputation of eating people, but this stereotype is untrue, as trolls are unable to digest anything but rock (some trolls in the Uberwald mountain regions, however, haven't cottoned on to this fact); they do, however, have to pay special attention to avoid unintentionally crushing humans to a pulp in order to become socially acceptable. The bar 'The Mended Drum' has trolls for security. They are called "splatters" because, as can be gathered from the implications of a silicaceous being belly-bouncing a human, trolls don't actually do so well as "bouncers." Traditionally, trolls are mortal enemies of the dwarfs. The vendetta dates to the infamous Battle of Koom Valley, during which one race allegedly ambushed and massacred the other, although no one is sure which side did the ambushing. Modern, urban trolls are sometimes able to work side-by-side with dwarfs with only moderate friction. Yetis are a subspecies of troll that live in mountainous areas and spin their wool out of rock (although only they know exactly how). Discworld yetis can "save" their life if they think there's going to be some kind of danger, then proceed in the comfortable knowledge that if it dies, it will go back to the saved point and do it all over again, except that "this time it won't be such a damn fool about it". This is described as something of a retroactive premonition.

In the world of Harry Potter, trolls are giant monsters that kill everyone they encounter. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Harry and Ron Weasley save Hermione Granger from a full-grown mountain troll. In the film, the troll was animated with computer-generated imagery. There are a few other subsequent mentions of trolls; for example it was rumored that Harry's Firebolt, which Dolores Umbridge "confiscated" was guarded by trolls. "Security trolls" are also mentioned in several places, as "the more intelligent of the species have been trained as guardians," according to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This book also subdivides the species into mountain, forest and river trolls (the latter being known for dwelling under bridges).

In the Artemis Fowl series, trolls are the largest of the fairy races. They are furry monsters of immense strength and little or no intellect. They fight with a pair of tusks and with retractable venomous claws on each "hand". The venom causes the victim to enter a paralyzing euphoria as he/she loses consciousness.

In the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy of fantasy novels written by Tad Williams, the troll is depicted as a relative mixture of dwarf and eskimo. They inhabit the mountains where they live in communal tribes and under strict tennets of laws which include the death sentence for mixing with outside races. They travel the precarious ledges of the mountains on the backs of nimble mountain goats.

In the children's novel, The Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer, trolls are mentioned a great deal. They are also known as Jotuns and Frost Giants. They had come from an island called Utgard, where it was very icy, as they liked it. They had a great fear of deep water, so they traveled to the mainland when a volcano on Utgard went off, either walking off on the ice, or riding whales. They then lived in Jotunhiem, and built their own castle, and elected a queen. See Yggdrasil.

In comics

In Elfquest, trolls are the descendants of the gnomish servants of the High Ones. In PvP, one of the main characters called Skull is a Troll.

In games

In the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, trolls are tall and skinny monsters with large, pointy noses and green skin. These trolls steadily regenerate all damage unless it is caused by acid or fire. Gary Gygax took this idea from the Poul Anderson story Three Hearts and Three Lions.(1)

In the Runequest and HeroQuest role-playing games set in Greg Stafford's world of Glorantha trolls, known as the Uz are one of the Elder races. They were originally dezinens of Hell, descended from their Goddess Kygor Litor and other darkness entities. They come in several forms, some of which are extinct. The Mistress Race are the direct descendants of the gods and spirits, they were once the predominant race, however when Burning Death, the Sun God Yelm came to Hell many Mistress trolls were slaughtered and their kin were forced in exodus to the surface world. The Mistress race were weakened and became the Dark Trolls. Over time and through many conflicts the Dark Trolls themselves were weakened by a curse that lead them to give birth to the scrawny Trollkin. Cragspider, a leader of the trolls tried to lift the curse and created the huge, but slow witted warrior race known as the Great Trolls. Several other races exist, the mutated Cave Trolls and Mountain Trolls, the Snow Trolls that dwell on Valind's Glacier and aquatic Sea Trolls. Trolls are large, between six and nine feet in height (apart from the pathetic Trollkin), they are obese, with grey skin mottled by other colours. They are omnivores and will eat anything, including rocks and are driven by intense hunger. They make powerful warriors, dark magicians and deadly nocturnal foes. Trolls have a specialist sense, called Darksense that allows them to operate by night, several members of the race are demoralised by sunlight and no sane troll comes out in the day. The Uz have been covered in great detail by Greg Stafford featuring in the products Trollpak, Troll Gods, Uz the Trolls of Glorantha, The Haunted Ruins and many more. They are one of the most detailed fantasy races in any game, the depth of their characterisation took them from being just monsters and made them into characters.

In the Earthdawn role-playing game, trolls are a tall, muscular and honorable race which players can role-play. Earthdawn trolls have curling horns like goats, lots of body hair and enlarged lower canines.

In the Shadowrun role-playing game, as well as in Changeling: The Dreaming, trolls are also a race available to player characters.

In the Palladium Fantasy Role-playing Game, trolls a race of vicious giants. Though they are fully as intelligent as humans, they tend towards impulsiveness and violence, and so do not acquire much in the way of civilization.

In computer games with a fantasy theme, trolls appear in many shapes and dispositions. In one of the most successful MMORPG, EverQuest, trolls are one of the choices for players to assume as their character. In Dark Age of Camelot, trolls are also a player race but appear more like a rock golem although they appear among the ranks of the Norse "Midgard" side.

Most computer games adopt the Dungeons & Dragons type of troll, with regeneration of some sort and a tendency toward extreme size, strength, and stupidity.

Warhammer Trolls are similar to Dungeons & Dragons Trolls. In addition, they have highly corrosive stomach acid that can dissolve anything from flesh and bone to rocks and metals. There are many different varieties of Troll, such as slimy River Trolls, magic resistant Stone Trolls and any number of mutated Chaos Trolls. Trolls are rather stupid, and are typically allied with orcs. They are known to be constantly hungry and altogether undesirable creatures to be around. Their blood is also a component of magical brews (or potions) of strength. In the Warhammer world, Trolls' nemesis are Dwarf Troll Slayers.

In the Warcraft series of PC games from Blizzard Entertainment, Trolls are an agile, mohawk-sporting, sentient race. They are savages, wielding axes and spears and practicing voodoo. There are five varieties of trolls in Warcraft. The green Forest Trolls of Zul'Aman (the Hinterlands), the icy blue Ice Trolls of Northrend and Khaz Modan, the large Dark Trolls of Ashenvale, the mysterious Desert Trolls of Tanaris, and the numerous Jungle Trolls. Of the many tribes of Jungle Trolls, the Darkspear Tribe was exiled from their native Stranglethorn Vale, and allied with the Horde when their new island home came under attack. These trolls regenerate from damage quite fast due to the fact that their skin is actually a moss-like substance. The Trolls of Warcraft are different from most representations of Trolls, for they are extremely clever and are one of the craftier races in the game.

Games Simon the Sorcerer and King's Quest portray trolls that guard bridges, who are repelled with the help of goats (a reference to the folk tale). In The Secret of Monkey Island, the main character Guybrush Threepwood encounters a troll who does not allow him to use a bridge. Shortly after, it is revealed that the troll is just a man, resembling George Lucas in a costume.

In the universe of The Elder Scrolls, trolls are green skinned, shaggy creatures, slightly larger than a grown man. They generally have the intelligence of a cave rat, build of a gorilla, but their flesh regenerates itself very quickly, making them difficult to kill. TES trolls are well known for being vulnerable to flame, and their three eyes are instantly recognizable.

Trolls are the main enemies in the X-Box game Kameo: Elements of Power.

Trolls are a repulsive looking enemy race in the MMOPRG Guild Wars. They are savage looking and attack by swinging their massive arms.

In heavy metal music

Troll metal is black metal music dealing with trolls, goblins and related subjects. Finntroll is one of the most famous troll metal bands. Singing Trolls relate their hate of humans, especially Christians, which are for them a plague to eradicate - and to eat. Another troll metal band is Trollfest - they have released only one CD called Willkommen Folk Tell Drekka Fest!! In English this means Welcome, folks, to the drinking fest!!.

(Via Wikipedia.)


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