Truly epic heroes need truly epic foes. I’ve talked about some of the heroes and creatures in Norse myths before now – this week we bring on the bad guys! The troll most of us know today has evolved considerably since ancient Norse times. The term started out as being a fairly generic term that could also describe a giant or an ogre. In some of the sagas the terms seem to be interchangeable. The one common thread is that trolls are almost never helpful to mankind. They “are perhaps not quite so huge (as giants) but strong, vigorous, unbalanced and nasty.” It was only under the influence of later Scandinavian folklore that the troll became a more distinct being and we see first mention of it being fairly unintelligent and turning to stone when exposed to sunlight.
Straight from the Source
One of the specific trolls mentioned in the Prose Edda is a unnamed troll woman. She tells the skald Bragi Boddason that “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?” So we have here established some associations with magic (seeress’ friendly companion) with the dead (corpse-fiord, meaning a grave) and with darkness (swallower of heaven-wheel – the sun.)
Tolkien’s Take on Trolls
The three trolls from The Hobbit follow closely along the lines of the mythical archetype – they are fairly stupid, large creatures who turn to stone when touched by sunlight. They also have a fondness for drinking beer. In LOTR Tolkien brings us many more examples of trolls, going so far as to break them down into different sub-categories: stone-troll, hill-troll, cave-troll etc… Treebeard the Ent says that trolls are a “mockery” of Ents. While some assume them to be a corruption of another lifeform, The Hobbit and LOTR both refer to sunlight turning trolls back into the stone from which they were made.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series tends to go the comedic route with most things and their treatment of trolls reflects that. Pratchett’s take on the monsters has them constructed from stone. The exact stone varies from troll to troll and there are even trolls composed of brick and the notable Diamond King of trolls is made of the shiny gemstone. While he has done away with the blatantly evil part of the legend, Pratchett has kept the tendency of trolls to be dumb as, well, dumb as rocks. I like the variety of his trolls. They all have the same base core yet the stone they are composed of reflects their locale and origins. If you want to see how Pratchett handles them I would recommend Thud! There are some great scenes in there revolving around the down-on-his-luck troll named Brick.
The Boy Who Lived Through a Troll Attack
The fight with the troll in the girls’ bathroom is a pretty cool scene, especially in the movie version of HP&TSS. While it stays true to the idea of trolls as big and dumb, it doesn’t add much of anything to the lore. JK Rowling pretty much gave us the straight up troll mythos. I really debated whether or not to include this section. While it doesn’t add much to the troll mythos it is true to the older stories and it’s safe to assume that more people have seen this interpretation of trolls than any other one.
It Had to Be Goats
My first exposure to trolls was through the fairytale The Three Billy Goats Gruff in which a trio of goats defeat the troll who prevents them from crossing a bridge. The story is a Norse fairy tale that first saw print in the 1840s and saw it’s first English adaptaion ten or so years later. We can see here the early elements of trolls being evil creatures. We also see the size discrepancy that was common for the earliest depictions of trolls. It would have had to be a really large goat to knock down the sort of trolls we see in the LOTR or HP books. I do have to admit to not quite understanding why they were called “Gruff.” Granted the alliteration is there between goat and gruff. It’s interesting to note that the Norwegian words also begin with the same letter – bukkene and bruse. Maybe it was just to imply that these are the sort of rough and tumble goats that don’t let anyone push them around.