They are all over Norway, at least in places frequented by tourists–in restaurants, on sidewalks, on cruise ships, and the overflowing shelves of souvenir shops. Like ugly hobbits embellished with huge ears and bulbous noses, their beady eyes stare at unwary shoppers and one can’t help but wonder, “WHY?”
Trolls have a long-standing hold on the popular imagination which shows no signs of weakening. A quick on line search for trolls brings up hundreds of sites from all angles, describing trolls in Norwegian folklore, displaying them in fantasy art with elves and fairies, even arguing in favor of their existence. Although generally portrayed as rotund, clumsy, and malicious, trolls vary in appearance and capabilities. They may have one, two, or even three heads. Although physically strong, they are usually defeated by trickery or exposure to sunlight, which turns them to stone. While fairies, ogres, and elves have a relatively predictable image, trolls can be huge or small, brutish or articulate, cunning or mischievous. This flexibility makes them especially useful in fantasy writing.
The troll encountered by Harry Potter and Ron Weasley in the girls’ bathroom at Hogwarts was huge, stupid, and foul-smelling: “Twelve feet tall, its skin was a dull, granite grey, its great lumpy body like a boulder with its small bald head perched on top like a coconut.” (1) The troll seemed bent upon mayhem, but easily confused and the teamwork required to defeat him launches a lasting friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The common belief that trolls turn to stone in the sunlight is not used in The Philosopher’s Stone, but is a crucial device in The Hobbit.
In Chapter 2 of J. R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins comes upon three very large creatures roasting mutton over a campfire. “Obviously trolls,” writes Tolkien. “Even Bilbo, in spite of his sheltered life, could see that: from the great heavy faces of them, and their size, and the shape of their legs, not to mention their language, which was not drawing-room fashion at all, at all.” (2) Crude as they are, they are more civilized than the inarticulate troll who cornered Hermione in the ladies’ room. They not only don’t smell bad, but they are having a conversation of sorts over their food and drink. Gandalf easily tricks them into arguing with each other until dawn, when the sunlight turns them to stone.
The troll king in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Travelling Companion,” is far more sophisticated. He lives inside a mountain where his throne room’s most exquisite adornments turn out, on closer examination, to be repulsive constructions of shiny flies, red spiders, mice, and bats. (3) Crafty and calculating, he controls the bewitched princess through magic until the travelling companion manages to behead the troll and break the spell. http://hca.gilead.org.il/travelng.html Forty years later, Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt feature a similar troll king inside a mountain who banters with Peer about human nature, claiming, “We troll-folk, my son, are less black than we’re painted; that’s another distinction between you and us.” (4) https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/ibsen/henrik/peer/
Troll folklore seems to spring naturally from the cliffs and mountains of the Norwegian landscape. Hidden caves and dense forests evoke tales of mysterious inhabitants, but whatever their origin and history, trolls continue to be prominent in popular culture. It may seem that modern trolls have degenerated considerably since the crafty mountain kings of the 19th century. But they continue to take many forms.
The celebrated Norwegian writer, Tor Age Bringsvaerd, known for introducing science fiction literature by authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Arthur C. Clarke into the Norwegian language, uses trolls to tell a morality tale. In his children’s book, The Little Troll. Bringsvaerd tells us that trolls may be good or bad, wise or foolish, just like people. They lead a reclusive life, looking after the forests and animals and never eating anything but porridge. In this story, a curious young troll, who takes nothing for granted, walks into the sunlight, showing the other trolls that they have nothing to fear.
Modern souvenir-shop trolls seem to fit best with this genre of gentle trolls. They can be male or female, adult or juvenile, with one head or two, but they look playful rather than malicious, in spite of their grotesque appearance. And perhaps, like trolls in popular literature, their attraction lies in their ability to be whatever we want them to be.
- J. K. Rawling, The Philosopher’s Stone, 1997, 190.
- J. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937, Chapter 2.
- Hans Christian Andersen, “The Travelling Companion,” 1835.
- Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt, Act II, 1876.
- Tor Age Bringsvaerd, The Little Troll, 2003.