Trolls: The Lovable Rejects of Mythology

Updated on October 31, 2018
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

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In the 21st century, trolls are either cute or annoying. A small plastic toy and an animated movie depicted them as happy little creatures with shockingly bright colored hair. For the last 40 years and beyond, children adored them.

The other caricature of trolls come from another medium, and they are anything but pleasant. Derived from the verb of “troll” (as in trolling the ocean floor with fishing nets), the term has become a noun to name a type of person who harass Internet users.

The two modern versions of trolls contrast each other. Ironically, the latter, nastier version of the Internet troll – the one not derived from ancient mythology – is similar in many fashion to the rogues of Norse myths and European legends.

How did these uncouth beings emerge and last long enough to become cultural icons? Possibly the best answer is that they were so disgusting and horrible for one not to forget.

Trolls of mythology – in particular the Nordic variation – were loathsome creatures. They’re survivors, as well. They transcended time and cultures to become one of the most hated creatures in literature. From fairy tales, movies, the Internet and toy collections, trolls emerged from the swamps of popular entertainment to make their putrid presence known.

How did these uncouth beings emerge and last long enough to become cultural icons? Possibly the best answer is that they were so disgusting and horrible for one not to forget. They are, in many respects, the lovable rejects of mythology.

The Troll’s Minor Role In Myth

In Nordic tradition, trolls had a surprisingly small arc. They were always adversaries to humans, animals, and gods. And, they were often represented as minor – if not vicious – characters.

However, they were similar to giants. In fact, the term that trolls is derived from is interchangeable with the word jotunn - an Old Norse word for giant. The word thurs -- later to become troll -- represented a negative form of jotunn in later translations.

Giants, in general, were either friends or foes of the Asgardian gods, the Aesirs. And in the bizarre, soap opera world of Norse Mythology, trolls and giants shared familial relations with the Aesirs.

Still, the myths indicate that they differed from Aesirs and another set of giant gods (and Aesir's main enemies) known as the Vanirs. They were rejected by both sides – never mind what their family tree suggested.

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As rejected deities, trolls were relegated to the most undesirable places. They lived in isolation in mountains, rocks, caves, or under bridges.In some cases, they lived in the deepest darkest forests between the nine worlds of the gods.

As Nordic myths gave way to European folklore, legends and nursery rhymes, the troll’s domain didn’t change much. Their appearance, on the other hand, took on the characteristics of the culture that adopted them into their storytelling traditions.And, these appearances, reflected a dark and hideous side of these societies.

Trolls as European Folklore

While living arrangements didn’t change, others aspects of the trolls did. For starters, giants and trolls became more distinctive. Giants became a synonym for tall and were therefore large beastly beings. Trolls, on the other hand, went the other direction – in terms of height. They became smaller versions of giants.

In addition, other habits came to fruition. Many stories during this time depicted them as nocturnal hunters that sought human and/or animal flesh. Some were given magical powers. Some became tricksters and others were considered descendants of dwarfs.

In addition, they formed a weakness. They couldn’t be exposed to sunlight, which could turn them into stone. This particular aspect would play a crucial role in modern fantasy tales such at The Hobbit.

However, the most significant moment during this time was the evolution of its name.

The Name’s Origin

After they captured the imagination (and some may say nightmares) of Europeans beyond the Nordic region, the word “troll” emerged to name them.

To this day, there is some confusion about the name’s original meaning. Some researchers believe it meant “someone who behaves violently.”

There are some indications it came from the old Swedish term of trolleri, which refers to a type of magic intended to do harm.

Also, there were these Old North Germanic terms:

  • trolldom,
  • trolla,
  • trylle.

Trolldom equates in many translation to “witchcraft.” Trolla and trylle were believed to be the acts of performing magic tricks (Troll, 2011).

Trolls “Invade” the British Isles

It didn’t take long for the trolls to cross the English Channel. There are accounts that claim that the word, itself derived from Old English. Its spread to England and insertion into British lore was most likely the result of the Viking conquest of Europe. No matter how it got there, trolls found a niche.

In the Orkney and Shetland Islands, stories about “trows” became popular. Trows was a term that came from the invading Vikings.They seemingly fit well with another lowly giant legend, the Ogre. In time, “trows” would become “trolls”, according to some accounts (mythicalcreatures.com, 2011).

They took on human-like forms and qualities. These trolls were described as being pathetic rather than monstrous.

Similar to the European and Nordic trolls, the English versions were devious and lived in the forests (above and below it), caves, tunnels or mounds (Mythology, 2011). In addition, they were the villains.

The British version, however, differed, too. They took on human-like forms and qualities. These trolls were described as being pathetic rather than monstrous.

But, the British troll took on a transformation that aligned them to European/Nordic version and the burgeoning Christian influence sweeping the continent.

One of the first significant works in English literature would the agent of change.

Beowulf and Grendal

Originally from Denmark, the epic poem, “Beowulf” spread throughout the British Isles. Later, monks transcribed the tale, adding references to the Christian faith. The classic story followed the exploit of an idealized hero. The crux of his tale was his battle with Grendal and Grendal’s mother. Two beastly beings that had the characteristics of Nordic trolls.

Christian influence infused in the written version of the poem made Beowulf’s nemesis more evil than before. The result was drastic: Grendal the troll soon became Grendal the descendant of Cain, the most infamous murderer from the “Book of Genesis”. This solidify the troll as an agent of the devil.

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Trolls and Fairy Tales

Trolls became a popular fixture in another genre. Fairy tales were fantastical stories told to children. They were about children, animals, or fairies. Many of them were derived from surviving the Eddic poems and oral traditions from pre-Christian Scandinavia and other parts of Europe.

One of the most popular tales was “Three Billy Goats Gruff” from Norway.

In the story, three Billy goats (a mother, father, and child) needed to cross a bridge to reach a knoll full of much-needed grass. The problem was that to get there, they had to cross a bridge where a troll dwells. Although there many versions of this story, most follow the following scenario:

  • The troll stopped each one, asking them why they wanted to cross, before threatening to eat them. The first two goats managed to trick the greedy troll by telling them that the next goat to cross is much bigger. Thinking with his stomach, he lets them go until he is confronted by the biggest of the three. However, the big Billy goat proved to be too much for the troll. It bucked him off the bridge, defeating him and opening the bridge to the other side.

This version reveals something that all types of trolls seem to share during this era; they became gate-keepers or obstacles that the protagonists had to face. In addition, they'd have riddles of games for the heroes to take. In the end, however, the nifty ploys to entrap the heroes never work; trolls were not known for their intellect or their ability to control their avarice ways.

The troll in the story was a warning to the children who heard these tales: vices would lead to one’s self destruction.

Trolls in Modern Literature

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a significant work of fiction. In many respects, it opened modern 20ths and 21st century readers to the European myths and folklore, via a modern fantasy. Among the recipients are the trolls.

In a pivotal chapter from the book (which later made it into the film adaptation), the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, was captured by three trolls. These greedy creatures wanted to eat Bilbo; however, they couldn’t agree. Seeing an opportunity, Bilbo encouraged the trolls to keep bickering with one another until sunrise, which instantly turned them to stone.

This version solidified (at least for the first half the 20th century) that trolls were big, nasty and dumb – much like they were depicted throughout their existence in folklore. If anything, Tolkien’s treatment only added one interesting aspect: they seem to have a good grasp of English, as their dialogue from the book and movie suggested.

Tolkien wasn’t first or last person to reinterpret trolls in modern time. In 1915, John Baur’s 1915 painting depicted them as having oversized ears and noses, as well as faces full of warts.

from John Bauer, 1915 for the book by  Walter Stenström "The Boy and the Trolls."
from John Bauer, 1915 for the book by Walter Stenström "The Boy and the Trolls." | Source

Even Marvel Comics got in on the troll craze. In its updated version of Thor, Marvel depicted the God of Thunder battling trolls (as well as the giants and other supervillain that derive its origin from the same place trolls originated from).

Trolls have made it in other realms of fantasy such as:

  • The Harry Potter books and movies
  • The movie adaptions of the The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbits
  • Several B-movies or low-budget films from the 7os, 80s, and 90s.

And, let’s not forget the dolls, the animated movie entitled Trolls and the Internet (albeit an entirely different beast in its own right).

From Mean to Nice

Although the depiction of trolls continues to be negative, there appears to be a few that are breaking from tradition.

This transformation started in the least likely way possible. A Danish fisherman and woodcutter struggled to make enough money to buy his daughter a Christmas gift. Instead of fretting, Thomas Dam decided in 1959 to carve a troll from wood. The serene, playful troll he created caught the attention of the children in his hometown of Gjøl. As a result, the demand for these troll dolls expanded to the point he took the next step and founded, Dam Things, a company to help him mass produce the dolls.

Over the years, they had several names: Dam Trolls, Good Luck Trolls, and Gonk Troll. Either way, by the end of the sixties, the dolls caught on and became an iconic figure in the United States.

Published in Good House Keeping (goodhousekeeping.com) originally supplied Dam corporation.
Published in Good House Keeping (goodhousekeeping.com) originally supplied Dam corporation. | Source

The trolls Dam created were based on his own imagination. It became a plastic figurine with clear complexion, wide eyes and furry up-combed hair (many coming in a variety of colored hair and clothing). The dolls became a huge fad in the United States and soon after ended up in video games, TV shows and comic books.

In 2016, the Dam Trolls became movie stars in the DreamWorks Animation production of Trolls. While the movie highlighted, the new "kinder and gentler" trolls, it also depicted the older, less glamorous version, as well (known as the Bergens in the film).

Trolls of Today

These days, the Dam Troll dominates the depictions of these mythological creatures. It is a major contrast from the ones found in folklore of ancient times.

Still, the ancient variation is not all together gone. As mentioned, the Internet troll seems to take on some of the annoying traits of the old one. But, these are real people rather than mythological beasts.

Troll may have been the rejects of mythology and folklore, but they’re doing fine in today’s mass media world of movies, TV, video games and the Internet. You just can’t keep them in their caves anymore.

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Questions & Answers

  • What is the lifespan of trolls?

    There's no definitive text that states the lifespan of trolls. Also, I suspect if it does exist it will vary among the cultures that have adopted them. One can assume that it's longer than the span of human's and is possible (at least in Nordic mythology) that might be eternal. Once again, this is pure conjecture.

© 2018 Dean Traylor

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    • DurhamStokie profile image

      Ian 

      10 months ago from Durham

      Interestingly, the majority of Icelanders still believe in, or at least refuse to deny the existence of elves, trolls, and other hidden beings

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