If you missed it, Episode 5 of the Hansard series went live as usual yesterday. There were so many folkloric elements to this story that I almost found it hard to pick a focus for today’s Folklore Snippet: Jack encounters a witch, a troll, and gives us an idea of the supernatural properties of iron. But as Episode 5 is titled ‘Troll’ it seemed only fair to put this beastie in the spotlight.
Trolls have their origins in the Old Norse legends of Scandinavia where they seem to be related to (or synonymous with) the Norse giants: gigantic, god-battling creatures – essentially the main antagonists of the Universe. Trolls may be descended from these titans, but they are considered a distinct, separate species. They are said to prefer living in remote locations away from human habitation, such as forests, mountains and caves. As for their appearance, the consensus is that they are often large and ugly, with a humanoid shape and dim-witted brains.
The story that you are most likely to have heard sometime in your life is the children’s tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. The troll in this story lives under a bridge and has ‘eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker’. Three billy goats cross his bridge, one by one. The smallest comes first, and persuades the troll that it would rather eat the next billy goat who is larger, thus a better meal. The second billy goat pulls the same trick as the first. The final billy goat is so big and strong that it overpowers the troll: in the wonderfully gory fashion of many old children’s tales, the goat gores out the troll’s eyes and crushes him to bits.
Another characteristic of trolls is their aversion to sunlight, which some say goes as far as causing trolls to turn to stone during daylight. In modern storytelling the most obvious example that springs to mind is J.R.R. Tolkien’s trolls in The Hobbit. Here the gluttonous, man-eating trolls are distracted by the tale’s resident wizard and tricked into arguing until dawn, at which point they turn to stone.
And if we’re talking about trolls in literature, I feel this Snippet wouldn’t be complete without a look at the trolls of the Discworld. You may have heard that the comic fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett sadly died today. That ‘sadly’ cannot even begin to convey the magnitude of this loss to the world. As a writer he helped me think Big Thoughts from a young age and convinced me of the true importance of storytelling in both evaluating and maintaining our humanity. The man has been my foremost literary idol since I was a teenager, and I am so grateful to have been shaped by his work.
The trolls of Discworld are typically mountain-dwellers and might classify as geography in their own right, being made of stones and minerals. They have silicon brains which overheat during the day: this accounts for their lack of intelligence during the daytime and naturally nocturnal behaviour. A neat play on the traditional portrayal of trolls turning to stone during daylight (perhaps that oddly shaped boulder you passed is merely sleeping?) Unlike their traditional counterparts, which eat human food (and, indeed, humans) Discworld trolls usually live on a diet of rocks and mineral-based drinks (it is no longer considered polite to eat humans on the Disc). Over the course of a series spanning more than 40 novels, we’ve seen trolls evolve from simple, stupid creatures that can be chained up like guard dogs, to a sophisticated people with their own rich culture, religion, and history. My favourite troll, and perhaps the most well-known, could only be Detritus – we see him go from being moronic hired muscle to a respected (and feared) member of the City Watch. He’s like the antithesis of the traditional Scandinavian troll: he’s dependable, he learns, he makes friends with an arch enemy, he falls in love, he catches bad guys (and most of the time they even remain in one piece).
Pratchett’s representation of trolls is so distinctive that today I have trouble visualising tolls as anything other than walking boulders with a fine spread of lichen across their broad shoulders. Turns out, in more traditional representations trolls are far closer to humans than rocks. Although generally ugly, some stories centre on the idea that a troll can even be mistaken for a human being, particularly where a troll parent decides to swap their baby troll for one of our human babies. The troll baby grows up with no one the wiser, but everyone suffers from the bad behaviour of this switched child. The inner ugliness of trolls is one of their most unifying features, manifesting in a bad temper and sloppy manners.
Whether trolls should be considered inherently evil seems to be an ambiguous topic. Certain breeds of troll are apparently kind, good-natured entities, like the farm-dwelling Tomtes and Nissen who bring good luck and help look after the animals. Despite this, if you ever met one, I think it would be hard to look past the old stories of human-eating trolls. But I, for one, would not pass up the chance to meet a troll of Detritus’ ilk.
Farewell, Sir Terry Pratchett. Thank you for the Big Thoughts dressed up in little stories.
“All right,” said Susan, “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need … fantasies to make life bearable.”
NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. DUTY. MERCY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
REALLY? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET YOU ACT, LIKE THERE WAS SOME SORT OF RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point?”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
Extract from ‘Hogfather’, by Sir Terry Pratchett.