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The Origin of Trolls

Literature | April 18, 2019

Stories of Trolls originated in Norway. Source: (eoffvreview.wordpress.com)

We may think we know a lot about trolls from that Dreamworks movie with Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, simply called Trolls, or from the band of helpful matchmakers in Disney’s Frozen, but the real Norwegian legends about trolls paint them in a different light. These trolls are big, stupid, enjoy eating humans, and they certainly don’t sing and dance. Let’s look at the origin of trolls. 

Herr Birre och trollen (Among Gnomes and Trolls) by Alfred Smedberg, 1909. Private Collection. Source: (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Trolls are a Norwegian Legend

Stories and legends about trolls come to us from Norway. The true origin of Troll stories is difficult to pin down, however. That’s because most of the Norse legends were handed down orally. When they were finally written down, the tales had changed and evolved, by generation and by location. Scholars still often disagree about the source materials for the legends. 

Trold-Tindterne, or Troll Peak in Norway. Source: (visitadanoite.webnode.com)

Trolls Turn to Stone

One commonly-held story about Trolls states that they turn to stone in sunlight. Norway is a rocky place with plenty of stone crags and outcroppings. It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to see that some of these rock formations look almost human-like, with weathered faces and stocky bodies. In fact, one place in Norway called Trold-Tindterne, or Troll Peak is so craggy that, according to Norse legend, it is the site where two armies of trolls were fighting a great battle. Each warrior was so intent on the fight they none of them noticed the rising sun until it was too late and both sides were turned to stone. This isn’t the only place in Norway that bears a Troll name. There are numerous others, including the popular attraction known as the Troll’s Tongue. 

Source: (folklorethursday.com)

Descriptions of Trolls

The descriptions of Trolls in ancient Norse legends are similar. Trolls were said to be larger than humans, and much stockier. They were strong and brutish. Images we have of Trolls show them with prominent noses and heavy brows. They dine on human flesh whenever they can, which isn’t too often. They are slow and dim-witted and easily tricked and befuddled by humans. Often, trolls are depicted as guarding something…like a bridge or treasure troves of gold and jewels. 

This sculpture of a Neanderthal man looks a lot like a Troll. Source: (vox.com)

Could Trolls Have a Basis in Reality?

From the descriptions given of Trolls, some researchers believe that the Norwegian stories of Trolls may, in fact, be based in reality. Trolls seem to resemble Neanderthals, with their heavy jaws and deep brows. These researchers surmise that modern man, as they explained across Europe, encountered groups of Neanderthals. Early modern man would have noted the similarities between himself and the Neanderthals but also observed differences…enough to conclude that Neanderthals were not as advanced as humans and were more monster-like. According to researchers, the modern man began to share stories of encounters with Neanderthals with other groups of humans, which led to the myths and legends we have about Trolls. 

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a trio of Trolls is outwitted. Source: (spoterncom)

Trolls Served a Purpose in Stories

In myths and legends from Norway, Trolls served an important purpose. They provided a contrast to show off the positive qualities of the hero. The Troll was ugly to the hero’s handsomeness, dumb to the hero’s cleverness, and slow to the hero’s quickness. The hero defeats the Troll, using a combination of intelligence and quickness. Trolls are foils to show the virtuous traits of the hero. 

In Dreamworks Trolls, the Trolls are cute and carefree. Source: (syfy.com)

Trolls Still Appear in Modern Stories

Frozen and the Trolls movie both showed Trolls in a positive light, but other modern-day Troll stories aren’t so flattering. Trolls show up in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the Harry Potter series, Game of Thrones, and the Shannara Chronicles.  

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.