Trolls are beings whose roots are embedded in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore and are typified as much by where they are found as their appearance and behaviour. Said to dwell in remote locations, from caves to mountains; lakes to beneath bridges, they exhibit human traits such as existing in a family unit and have humanoid limbs and recognisable features, though many tales tell of them being particularly ugly creatures. They are common in literature of many kinds, as well as film, music and art.
The origin of the troll is unclear but seems most likely to be linked to the Scandinavian jötunn, a race of beings that were neither Gods nor human, being more similar to the Titans of Greek mythology. Existing in harmony (or sorts) with their environment, they are largely ambivalent to both good and evil and without religious affiliation. Living isolated lives away from built-up areas, trolls are generally said to have voracious appetites, the smaller of the species holding great feast days. With humans being on the menu only when available, they have been known to eat cattle, vegetation and even rocks.
To confuse matters, trolls are also linked to other forest and mountain beings. These include the Huldufólk (hidden folk) of Icelandic and Faroese legend (though these are more kindly and elvish in nature); the Huldrefolk variant of Norway, which most closely resemble the typical Danish and Southern Swedish troll who were much shorter in stature and less solitary than the huge ogre-ish Norwegian creatures, who would generally be referred to as giants elsewhere. Tales also refer to Huldrefolk in the Orkney Islands, where they were rather more respectable farmers, and the Vitterfolk who only appeared in Northern Sweden.
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) in modern Scandinavian languages do not imply any connection with the mythical beings. Even earlier linguistics lead to Proto-Indo-European roots – to run, flee or escape.
Trolls are always closely linked to nature and the elements, with some able to travel via the wind and others able to disguise themselves as logs, rocks and animals – more bizarrely, stories of them appearing as unravelling balls of thread exist. Slow-moving and dim-witted, their exposure to sunlight usually turns them to stone. Their appearance is like the traditionally depicted Neanderthal Man, with jutting jaws; large foreheads and a generally gnarled, ugly look, though their appetites meant that they generally had fat bellies.
With the effect of sunlight on them being deadly, their habitats were always shady, to the extent of occasionally being subterranean. Although happy to eat humans, there are also tales of them being kidnapped and taken to a remote lair in the mountains, only to reappear in society at a later date, physically fine but mentally scarred beyond medical help. An indication of troll activity in an area could included disturbed boulders, under which they could access their hiding places – these could even be held open with bars of gold. Lightning strikes were said to terrify and disperse trolls, and were said to come directly from Thor’s mighty hammer, Mjolnir: indeed, stone-age hand axes which are uncovered are sometimes kept as amulets to protect against trolls.
Though Godless, trolls are intolerant of church bells pealing and have been said to destroy churches in a bid to eradicate the sound. The presence of churches across Scandinavia today is believed to be the reason that sightings of trolls are almost non-existent in recent years. Large stones found, seemingly randomly, across the countryside in Northern Europe are sometimes referred to as a result of a “Troll’s Toss” – sometimes having been used to destroy something; other times as shelter from the sun’s rays.
From the height of the Romantic period of the mid-19th Century to the turn of the century, trolls became rather more symbolic and fanciful than creatures to genuinely take care against. Edvard Grieg’s towering work, Peer Gynt, features trolls heavily in the suites for ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ and ‘March of the Trolls’, though the composer himself felt it was comfortably one of his lesser works. Regardless, Grieg’s former home, now a museum, is called Troldhaugen (“The Troll’s Hill”).
In the world of art, trolls became entwined with fairies, enchanted princesses and happily ever afters, with artists like the Swede, John Bauer, celebrated widely for his illustrations, chiefly the work he did for the 1907 book, Among Gnomes and Trolls. By the mid twentieth century, the vicious nature of trolls was in danger of being eradicated completely, with the publication of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, the hippo-like beings who rarely endured little more than gentle adventures.
Trolls have infiltrated popular culture primarily from one source, certainly outside of Scandinavia – the fairy tale, The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Titled De tre bukkene Bruse in its Norwegian origins, the tale was first made readily available via folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in their collection, Norske Folkeeventyr, published between 1841 and 1844. Largely unchanged through the years, the story sees three related goats named Gruff of ascending ages attempting to cross a bridge to access new pasture. Below the bridge lives an enraged troll who attempts to eat anyone who dares to cross his domain. Delaying tactics allow the largest goat to knock the troll into the fast-flowing river with his horns.
Although the structure of the tale has remained the same, some details have been significantly diluted, as can be seen with the original ending, translated from the original Norwegian:
‘Well, come along! I’ve got two spears,
And I’ll poke your eyeballs out at your ears;
I’ve got besides two curling-stones,
And I’ll crush you to bits, body and bones.’
That was what the big billy goat said. And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade, and after that he went up to the hillside. There the billy goats got so fat they were scarcely able to walk home again. And if the fat hasn’t fallen off them, why, they’re still fat; and so,
‘Snip, snap, snout.
This tale’s told out.’
This fairytale is still the overriding image of a troll that many non-Scandinavian people have – ugly, territorial, simple-minded and greedy. As such, the threat of the troll in popular culture is largely less than that of other folkloric monsters, though recent years have seen them undergo something of a make-over, not least in the hugely successful 2010 film, Trollhunter, which sees elements of many troll legends brought into the modern day.
Trolls in Popular Culture
- Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt (published in 1867), features multiple troll characters, though the work is better known now for Edvard Grieg’s musical accompaniment which has now grown in stature to overshadows its source. Dovregubben, the troll king (or mountain king) features in the most famous suite of music, In the Hall of the Mountain King.
- Though first manufactured in Denmark in 1959, wild-haired Troll dolls were widely collected by children in the 1980s. This later served as the inspiration to the DreamWorks animated film Trolls in 2016.
- In Poul Anderson‘s novel, Three Hearts and Three Lions, trolls are depicted as eight-foot-tall, man-eating creatures that are almost impossible to kill, since their bodies immediately re-knit and repair any damage, however severe. Even beheading a troll is of no avail: He would simply pick up his head and place it back on his neck and within a moment be “as good as new”. A troll’s only vulnerability is to fire. The only way to kill one is to cut him to pieces and burn each and every one of them before they had a chance to re-knit.
- Trolls are considered a nuisance in the 1988 fantasy film Willow, with the title character expressing his disdain for trolls early in the film.
- In The Lord of the Rings franchise, there are different types of trolls ranging from Stone Trolls (which turn to stone when exposed to sunlight), Two-Headed Trolls, Hill Trolls, Cave Trolls, Mountain Trolls, Snow Trolls, and the Olog-Hai (the type of Trolls that can withstand sunlight).
- In Dungeons & Dragons, the Trolls are depicted as tall skinny humanoids with long noses, rubbery skin, a regenerating ability, and vulnerability to fire. Other types of Trolls include the Black Trolls, Blood Trolls, Cave Trolls, Crystalline Trolls, Desert Trolls, Fell Trolls, Fire Trolls, Forest Trolls, Giant Trolls (which is a crossbreed between a troll and a Hill Giant), Giant Two-Headed Trolls (which is a crossbreed between a troll and an Ettin), Gray Trolls, Ice Trolls, Mountain Trolls, Rock Trolls, Scrags, Slime Trolls, Spirit Trolls, Stone Trolls, Tree Trolls, War Trolls, and Wasteland Trolls. In addition, they keep the canine-like Trollhounds as pets in their tribes.
- In the Harry Potter franchise, the Trolls are strong creatures and are listed as XXXX by the Ministry of Magic’s classification on them. There were different types of trolls, ranging from Forest Trolls, Mountain Trolls, and River Trolls. In Bridge to Terebithia, there is a female giant troll that resides in Terebithia.
- Trolls exist in the Warcraft franchise, though they are notably African in culture, practicing voodoo and speaking in Jamaican accents.
- Trolls are among the creatures that appear in the Ugly Americans animated television series.
- Troll and I is an action-adventure video game developed by Spiral House and published by Maximum Games for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. A young boy named Otto forms a bond with a giant troll which is being pursued by a merciless hunter. It is set in a post World War Two Scandinavia.
- The name Jotunheimen comes from Jötunheimr, which is one of the Nine Worlds and the world (home) of the giants in Norse Mythology. From there, the giants menace the humans in Midgard and the gods in Asgard, from whom they are separated by the river Ifing.
- Trollstigen (English: Trolls’ Path], is a serpentine mountain road in Rauma Municipality, Møre og Romsdal county, Norway.
- Trollveggen (‘The Troll Wall’) is part of the mountain massif Trolltindene (‘Troll Peaks’) in the Romsdal valley, near Molde on the Norwegian west coast. Trollveggen is the tallest vertical rock face in Europe, 1100 meters from the base to the summit. The Troll Wall has been a prestigious goal for climbers and BASE jumpers for decades. The wall was first scaled in 1958 along a climbing route known as Trollryggen. In 1980, a new sport appeared when the Finnish Jorma Aster made the first jump with parachute off the Troll Wall. However, since 1986, parachuting off of the Troll Wall has been prohibited by law as a result of several accidents and dangerous rescue missions.
- In the far north of Antarctica at Jutulsessen, the Norwegians operate a research station named Troll, aptly served by Troll Airfield.
Selected Troll Filmography:
The Hobbit (1977)
The Boy Who Loved Trolls (1984)
Cat’s Eye (1985)
The Little Troll Prince (1987)
Troll 2 (1990)
A Troll in Central Park (1994)
Gnomes and Trolls: The Secret Chamber (2008)
The Boxtrolls (2014)
Trolls Holiday (2017)