Trolls

Course #1 / Mythological Creatures

The Ash Lad and the Troll by Theodor Kittelsen (1900)

One of the symbols of the modern day Norway, trolls have their roots in the Norse mythology and the old folk tales of the Scandinavia. While you can find a cute looking troll figure in almost every souvenir shop in Norway, their literary image is slightly different.

The origin of trolls

Norse mythology has given a lot of fairy-tale heroes and creatures. Trolls are one of them. They are believed to be the ancestors of the giant Ymir – jötunns. In Old Norse poems, jötunns were the enemies of the human race and the gods that resided in the Asgard. They often got in conflict and tried to steal their wives or important accessories owned by gods. However, the more direct link of a jötunn and troll began when Norway went through the Christianization. Then there appeared more and more stories about Saint Olaf and his encounters with trolls. He was one of the main reasons, why trolls, later on, were portrayed as evil-minded creatures that hate Christians and everything related to them. A symbolic reference to the history of pagan traditions in Norway.

Appearance & character

The poems and folk tales reproduce the appearance of trolls diversely. They might be relatively short and change their appearance to vanish between humans. However, most stories describe trolls as creatures of tremendous size that can have multiple heads. Trolls are gifted with great strength, but they lack intellect and in the folk tales the humans, who have confrontations with trolls, usually outsmart them.

There are different types of trolls but they all usually have a tail. The forest trolls are smaller and they live in the caves, while mountain trolls are large and their backs can look like massive stones covered by moss. Despite that inhuman strength and terrifying appearance, trolls have a major weakness that makes them vulnerable. They try to avoid the sunlight as much as they can, otherwise, it will turn them into stones. Folk tales depicts trolls like night creatures that go for a hunt when the sun goes down. Darkness is their element and troll itself is mostly associated with intentions to do harm and apply their wicked magic towards humans.

Trolls in the literary and artworks

Along with the folk tales around the Scandinavia, trolls play their role in the famous Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. In the second act, Gynt has an encounter with a wise mountain troll king, who offers the protagonist to marry his daughter and become one of them. Mentions of the mountain trolls can be found in the J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. However, Tolkien’s legendarium features a more typical description of a troll – dumb and hungry creature that is afraid of the sun.

The Finnish writer Tove Jansson made a completely different portrayal of trolls. She wrote a series of books about the Moomintrolls and unlike in all the other folk and literary tales – Moomins are small and friendly creatures. They do no harm to humans and visually they look like small hippopotamuses. Stories about these likable characters became very popular around the world and there have been cartoons, films and music also made about them. Same like trolls are one of the symbols of Norway; Moomins became one of the symbols of Finland.

Trolls were popular characters in Theodor’s Kittelsen’s drawings and paintings. Kittelsen is regarded as one of the famous artists of Norway and his illustrations were used in the Norwegian Folktales book series. The portrayal of trolls in Kittelsen’s works matches the description from the fairy tales – trolls are shown as enormous and mystic figures of the forest and mountains disguised in the mist.

Swedish illustrator John Bauer was known for his love of the untouched nature of Sweden and the heroes of mythology. Bauer earned considerable fame in Sweden after he created illustrations for the first four volumes of the popular Swedish fairy tale book Among Gnomes and Trolls. His works show trolls as the residents of forests, caves, and mountains. Some are huge and large-nosed; some are more like dwarfs – shorter than the human race, as well as with long hair and beards.

Impact on the Scandinavian geography

The popularity of trolls left its footprints around the Scandinavian countries. There are villages and towns, like Trollhättan in Sweden, Trollåsen in Norway or Trøllanes village in the Faroe Islands that has a story of its origins directly connected to the old folk tales about trolls.

Other examples of geographical objects that include reference to the trolls are Trölladyngja lava field and Tröllaskagi peninsula in Iceland, Trollheimen mountain range, as well as Trollaskeinuten and Trolla mountains in Norway. One of the Norwegian Antarctic research stations also carries the name Troll.

Norway also has a popular tourist attraction – a serpentine mountain road, named Trollstigen. Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists take a drive to this unusual road and stops there to take pictures from one of the multiple viewing platforms.

Sources | Mary H. Foster & Mabel H. Cummings. Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology (2011) | Stroebe, Hood, and Martens. The Swedish Fairy Book (1921) | Klara Stroebe. The Norwegian Fairy Book (1922) | Abbie Farwell Brown. In the Days of Giants A Book of Norse Tales (1902)

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