Norse and Scandinavian folk tales
Trolls were creatures in Norse myth and legend who became part of the folklore of Scandinavia and northern Europe. Generally trolls were thought to be evil and dangerous, although sometimes they interacted peacefully with people. They were clever at building and making things of stone and metal, and often lived in caves or among rocks.
Early stories described trolls as giants who lived in castles and roamed during the night. When exposed to sunlight, trolls turned to stone. The stone crags of a place called Trold-Tindterne (Troll Peaks) in central Norway are said to be two armies of trolls that once fought a great battle until sunrise caught them and turned them to stone. Over time, trolls came to be portrayed as being about the size of humans or, in some cases, as small as dwarves.
In one popular myth, a man named Esbern loved a girl whose father would not let her marry until Esbern built a fine church. A troll agreed to build the church for Esbern on the condition that if Esbern could not discover the troll's name by the time the job was done, the troll would have Esbern's eyes and his soul. Try as he might, Esbern could not learn the troll's name. He was in despair until the girl he loved prayed for him. At that moment Esbern heard the troll's wife singing to her baby, and her song contained the name of her husband.
Trolls in Context
The treatment of trolls in northern European folklore over the centuries can be viewed as a reflection of that region's relationship with Christianity. Early tales of trolls describe them as mystical nature beings or distant relatives of the gods. After the people of northern Europe converted to Christianity, many of their stories featured prayer as a weapon against trolls, who were portrayed as wicked. One folk tale even describes trolls as the unclean siblings of humans who were hidden from God out of shame.
Key Themes and Symbols
A common theme in stories of trolls is a bargain between a troll and a human, in which the human must outwit the troll or suffer a sad fate. This is shown in the tale of Esbern, where the man must discover the troll's name or he will die. This also illustrates the theme of trolls as clever or crafty tricksters , occasionally helping humans but often causing problems.
Trolls in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Trolls are one of the few mythical creations associated specifically with northern Europe, and they appear frequently in Scandinavian art. Many Scandinavian depictions of trolls resemble squat, stone-like figures with long, flowing hair—similar to the stones seen beneath waterfalls throughout the region, believed by some to be trolls who had been turned to stone by the sun. Folk tales of trolls are common in literature, and some early twentieth century illustrators such as Jon Bauer helped to define and popularize the modern image of a troll. Modern fantasy writers beginning with J. R. R. Tolkien have made trolls a standard creature in their fantasy worlds. Although trolls are mostly limited to children's tales in Scandinavia, many people still hold superstitious beliefs about the creatures and will avoid disturbing areas thought to be inhabited by the creatures.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Troll Fell (2004) by Katherine Langrish tells the story of Peer, a Scandinavian boy who is forced to live with his evil uncles after his father dies. Even worse, his uncles live in a forest surrounded by mischievous trolls and they plan to offer Peer as a gift to the creatures. The novel is the first in Langrish's Troll Trilogy, which also includes Troll Mill (2005) and Troll Blood (2007).