30 June 2014


John Lindow. Trolls: An Unnatural History. Reaktion Books, 2014.

There seems to be a difference of opinion on the use of the word ‘troll’ to describe someone who is something of a nuisance on Internet fora. Wikipedia notes that apart from the word describing an ugly dwarf and by comparison the uglier characters on the Internet, it may also be derived from “the fishing technique of slowly dragging a lure or baited hook from a moving boat”, presumably to drag unwitting participants into the troll’s little game.
This fascinating book deals with the creatures that inspired the first definition. We find these originally in the Viking Age, where one makes herself know to Bragi, probably a ninth century poet who was later identified as one of the sons of Oðinn. Whilst walking through a forest Bragi become involved in a riddling poetic competition with a creature which is not described in any way except that she was female, and therefore in old Norse literature a figure of darkness and disorder, representing the wild ‘other’ that lurks in Norway’s cold and impenetrable mountains

This is how they are depicted for the next thousand years in saga, legend and folklore, but gradually ‘troll’ came to mean almost anything sinister or supernatural. In modern Norwegian the term can sometimes just mean ‘magic', Mozart’s Magic Flute is Trollflöjten, even the heroic good character Gandalf in Lord of the Rings appears as trollmannen in the Norwegian version.

Sometimes they manifest as giants, and as in some English legends, are responsible for moving churches or creating geological features, such as the Jutulporten, a huge door-like cleft in a mountainside. At other times they appear as small, domestic-scale creatures, like the boggarts of Northern English folklore, who help out around the farm so long as they are treated kindly by the farmer, or more particularly, the farmer’s wife. They appear particularly useful at providing a barrel of beer for wedding celebrations - so long as they are paid back in kind. Indicative of the troll as being outside society, in one such tale the helpful troll asks the housewife to remove a cross drawn on a beer-barrel before he is able to take it back to his home.

In this guise they also appear as guardians of local standards, threatening to boil alive farmers who over-worked their labourers, or neglected their land through late-night carousing - firm but fair discipline some might call it. But at other times they threaten to boil people alive apparently just for the hell of it.

Eventually they became the stuff of fairy-tales and children’s illustrated books, and one chapter charts the development of the image of the troll as depicted by artists and book illustrators in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perhaps the most remarkable and evocative of these are the trolls as drawn by Theodor Kittelsen, who depicts them as half-formed creatures, seemingly emerging from the landscape, their bodies merging with the rocks and trees. It is a shame that this otherwise well-illustrated chapter could not show a few these pictures in colour, but some of his art can be seen in this YouTube presentation (Warning: loud music from the start!).

Now the troll is a tourist novelty printed on a mug, or a small plastic figure to stick, in a very uncomfortable-seeming position, on the end of your pencil, or a decorative feature on bridges as far from Norway as Fremont WA, or San Francisco.

But this is Magonia, and we discuss vision and belief. Do people still believe in trolls, do they still see them? Well it would seem they do, and Lindow starts his historical account with a contemporary report of a troll seen by a friend while she was waiting for a late-night tram in Oslo. She saw the figure with its long shaggy hair waving to her down the track, only, in traditional style, to disappear as the lights of the approaching tram came into view. It is really the only fault I can find with this book that this is not discussed further, and we do not learn whether or not such visions are still an “actual experienced phenomenon” in Norway or elsewhere in Scandinavia. But maybe that is for another book? -- Jon Grímr.

1 comment:

  1. The Internet usage of the term does indeed come from "trolling", which in turn looks to be related to "trawling". The idea was originally (20-25 years ago) to dangle argument-provoking bait in unsophisticated discussion groups and then sit back and watch the fun. A classic 'troll' (= 'example of trolling') was the complaint somebody posted in a Star Wars fan group about the scientific inaccuracies in the films, e.g. the spacecraft being shown to cast shadows: "everyone knows light can't travel in a vacuum". Over the years "trolling" came to be associated with people who started arguments because they liked upsetting people rather than as an intellectual game, & they in turn became known as trolls, and here we are.

    Back on the 'real' trolls, personally I'd be interested to know more about the local reception of the film Troll Hunter - it sounds as if disbelief didn't need to be suspended quite as high as it did over here.