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A Brief History of Trolls

Illustration for article titled A Brief History of Trolls

Trolls have been popularized in Nordic mythology and Scandinavian folklore. Here is a brief history of trolls who tromped through the imaginations of generations, before they relocated from their ancestral lands (mountains, forests, under bridges, etc) to their new homes on the internet.

The term “troll” has been applied to the jötnar, the Ice Giants of old, as the Norwegian word tusse evolves from the Old Norse rune used to describe the jötnar, Thurs (Þurs in Old Norse). Some attributes of the jötnar are certainly troll like, as some had multiple heads, deformed bodies, claws, and fangs. This stands in contrast with other depictions of the jötnar as being incredibly beautiful, (like Skaði), or perhaps the aesthetically beautiful jötnar are simply outliers.


Norse trolls dwell in mountains, caves, and under the occasional bridge. The Prose Edda describes a meeting between a female troll and the poet (skald) Bragi, with the troll saying:

“Trolls call me
moon of dwelling-Rungnir,
giant’s wealth-sucker,
storm-sun’s bale,
seeress’s friendly companion,
guardian of corpse-fiord,
swallower of heaven-wheel;
what is a troll other than that?”

This stanza aptly describes the insatiable appetite that is almost inherent in all incarnations of trolls in literature. Trolls eat stone, livestock, humans, and generally anything they can get their hands on. This tradition is illustrated further in the fairy tale “Boots Who Ate a Match With The Troll.” The story begins with a man sending all of his sons into the forest to chop wood in order for him to obtain currency to pay his debts. A troll appeared, and intimated the two oldest sons, causing them to scurry off. The youngest son, called Askeladden, asked the troll for food. The troll threatened Askeladden, and in turn, Askeladden tricked the troll into thinking that he was unbelievably strong. This highlights another troll trait: traditionally, they are not very bright. The fairy tale “Three Billy Goats Gruff” suggests that even a goat can outsmart a troll. Askeladden tricks the troll in this fairy tale by squeezing the whey from a ball of cheese, telling the troll that it was a stone, and that if the troll did not comply to his desires, he would meet a similar fate at Askeladden’s hands. This frightened the troll, who then assisted Askeladden with cutting the wood.

Askeladden continues to trick the troll throughout this fairy tale. With the wood cutting complete, the troll invites Askeladden back to his home. The troll then asks Askeladden to fetch water for him, in two gargantuan buckets that are far too big for Askeladden to carry. Instead, Askeladden says that the buckets are too small for him, (as he is so strong that he can carry the entire spring), causing the troll to balk and fetch the water. Askeladden does the the troll’s original task, and starts a fire. The porridge is made, and the eating contest between Askeladden and the troll begins.

Askeladden japes the troll once more. Askeladden does so by slicing a hole into his scrip (essentially a medieval fanny pack), and covertly places more porridge in the scrip than in his stomach. The troll does not catch this, and soon becomes fool. Askeladden then suggests that the troll cut a hole in his stomach so that he may eat more, in order to not forfeit the contest. The troll does so, and promptly expires from the self-made wound. Askeladden relieves the trolls house of gold and silver, and triumphantly returns home.

Trolls also have other attributes given to them in fairy tales. Trolls can apparently smell the blood of a Christian Man. Trolls loathe daylight, and turn into stone when they are exposed to it. They also toss stones as means of combat.

Trolls are not limited to fairy tales. Trolls show up in more contemporary sources. Trolls are found in The Chronicles of Narnia, living in an area of Narnia called the Trollshaws, populating the lands cold mountains. Trolls also reside in Middle Earth. Trolls are the first obstacle encountered by the company of Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves of Erebor. Trolls are also valuable weapons of war used by Sauron and the armies of Mordor, and are often depicted throwing stones in a way that is akin to cannon fodder.

Trolls are also a source of musical inspiration. “In The Hall of the Mountain King (Peer Gynt),” composed by Edvard Grieg, is music inspired by a scene from the Henrik Ibsen’s play, entitled Peer Gynt. The main character of the play, Peer Gynt, in a dream like fantasy state, enters the Troll King’s Mountain Hall. The lyrics associated with the piece describe the residents of the Mountain King’s hall calling for Gynt to be slain and then consumed.

The popular 2010 “found footage” mockumentary, Trolljegeren, is set under the premise of University Students creating a documentary on illegal bear hunting in Norway. The group of students follow Hans, the suspected poacher, only to discover that he is actually an employee of the Norwegian government, and is dedicated to maintaining the troll population of Norway. The film includes many cultural references to trolls, and several specific references to fairy tales.


Not all trolls in popular culture are nefarious. The trolls in Frozen are the adoptive family to a main character, Kristoff, and assist him throughout the film. The trolls in Frozen are family oriented and loving, standing in stark contrast to how trolls are traditionally portrayed.

The Moomins are another example of stereotype smashing family oriented trolls.

Illustration for article titled A Brief History of Trolls

The family consists of Moominmamma, Moominpapa, and Moomintroll. These trolls are not surly and unintelligent. Moomins are even able to make companions and maintain long lasting friendships. They reside in the fictional Moominvalley. The Moomins are the focus of numerous books and a television show, and have delighted Nordic children for decades.

Humanity is stuck with trolls, whether they like it or not. Like many mythological creatures, trolls contain multitudes. Whether they are friends or foes, trolls have stomped their footprints on the consciousness of humanity, and will continue to do so until the end of time.


Image via John Bauer, created in 1915
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