Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tolkien’s Icelandic Trolls

My recent post on Bilbo Baggins’s ride and the influence of Iceland on JRR Tolkien brought a wonderful response from Þóra Magnúsdóttir in Iceland, who sent me a link to the February 28, 1999 issue of the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið. There, reporter Linda Ásdísardóttir interviewed 89-year-old Arndís Þorbjarnardóttir who had been an au-pair in the Tolkien household while JRR Tolkien was writing The Hobbit.

Describing her time in Oxford, Arndís noted that the Tolkien boys often asked her to tell them about Iceland, especially “about trolls and monsters.” After reading The Hobbit, she said, she realized “the professor” had been listening in to her Icelandic tales. He must have, “to create those little folk who have hairy toes just like ptarmigans!”

I must admit I never before saw any similarity between hobbits and ptarmigans.

But I have long thought Tolkien’s trolls were Icelandic.

The troll scene in The Hobbit is one of my favorites. Bert, Bill, and Tom are so blusteringly barbaric, comparing the taste of mutton to manflesh, and Bill’s squeaking purse is such a fine surprise for both Bilbo and the reader. But mostly I liked Tolkien’s scene for its ending:

“Dawn take you all, and be stone to you!” Gandalf pronounced, after having kept the trolls arguing among themselves all night until the sun came up. “And there they stand to this day, all alone, unless the birds perch on them,” Tolkien writes, “for trolls, as you probably know, must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of, and never move again.”

John Rateliff, in his fascinating two-part study, The History of the Hobbit (HarperCollins, 2007), finds Tolkien’s “as you probably know” to be rather coy. Tolkien “seems to have introduced the motif” of trolls turning to stone if struck by the sun’s rays “to English fiction,” Rateliff writes, so his readers could not possibly have known.

Yet I knew. Perhaps not the first time I heard The Hobbit read to me, at the age of four, but at least by the time I read it to my own son when he was four in 1993. For by then I had been to Iceland several times.

And in Iceland you can hardly take a hike without meeting a troll—often with birds perched on them, as in the beautiful picture book by Guðrun Helgadóttir and Brian Pilkington, Flumbra: An Icelandic Folktale (Iðunn 1981; though they call Flumbra a giant, not a troll). Here is one of Pilkington’s illustrations:

The summer my family lived at the abandoned farm of Litla Hraun on the west coast of Iceland—a summer described in my book A Good Horse Has No Color, as well as in my husband’s Summer at Little Lava (FSG 1998)—we looked out our window every day at the story of a troll.

One night, an amorous trollwoman decided to visit her lover on the western end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. She took her horse, and a bucket of skýr (a kind of Icelandic yogurt) as a gift. She and her lover sported all night and she got a late start going home. About the middle of the peninsula, she dropped the empty bucket to ride faster. A little further on, her horse foundered and she abandoned him, running as hard as she could for home. The sun caught her at the mountain pass now named for her, Kerlingarskarð, and turned her to stone. Or at least that’s how our neighbor, the farmer at Snorrastaðir, told us the story.

Out my window, I could easily pick out the mountain peaks called Skýr Bucket and Horse. (You can see the back of the Horse just above the crater of Eldborg in this photo.) Crossing (on the old road) north to the town of Stykkishólmur, I would crane my head out the car window to say hello to the old trollwoman, the Kerling.

On a later visit to Skagafjörður, I learned the story of the blocky island Drangey that dominates the fjord. A troll and his wife had a cow in heat, but their cowherd was away so they decided themselves to lead her across the fjord to a neighbor’s bull. They misjudged the distance. The rising sun caught them only halfway across the water, and there they remained: the cow as the island itself, Karl as a tall rock stack on the seaward side, and Kerling as a matching stack on the landward side (though one or the other of the trolls, I forget which, has since tumbled down).

Every Icelandic farmer I’ve met knows stories like these of the mountains and islands and rocks near his or her farm. One of my friends jokes that you can’t take a step in Iceland without standing on a story. I agree. And while we know that Tolkien himself never visited Iceland, it seems that Iceland—and its stories—visited him. In the interview in Morgunblaðið, Arndís notes that she was not the first Icelandic au-pair to work for the Tolkiens in Oxford. Aslaug, an Icelandic woman who had gone to school with Arndís, had been there for the previous year and a half and had gotten Arndís the job. Who knows what stories Aslaug might have told. Perhaps the stories of Iceland’s Hidden Folk, who are so much like Tolkien’s elves?


  1. True.

    But the concept of being turned to stone is also well represented throughout the British Isles where there are many standing and stone circles (of which Stonehenge is an example, although the only one with lintels), which date back thousands of years. Many of these have legends and folklore attached to them dating back many hundreds of years about people, and sometimes also animals, being turned to stone. Since Vikings invaded and occupied a good chunk of England it's difficult to know how much of this preexisted their incursion but it's certain some of it did.

    There is also a large body of legend and folklore about magical beings much of which was inspired by the other sites built by the people who constructed the circles, such as their barrows (burial mounds) and chambered tombs. These beings range from creatures akin to the barrow wights that appear in The Lord of the Rings (but not in the films) to gorgeous, glorious people more akin to his elves. The later owes much to diluted renditions of Celtic Mythology.

    He might not have drawn as heavily on these sources as he did the Sagas and Eddas but he certainly would have been aware of them.

  2. Absolutely. I don't at all mean to diminish the importance of Celtic folklore in inspiring Tolkien. His interests were very wide-ranging. But I'm partial to the Icelandic connection.

  3. Amazing how I accidently found this article. Very good and detailed and exactly how I see those things also.

    I worked on the farm Snorrastaðir in 2000 when I was 11 years old. The people there are also my causins in two ways so I know them alot. And I also heard this story when I was working there by the farmer named Haukur (you might have talked to him? )

    As a geology student in the university, there is alot speculasions on trolls and old mythology which I like alot.
    Feel free to add me on facebook

    1. Yes, Haukur is a great storyteller. I enjoy visiting him. Maybe I met you when you were a boy!

  4. In writing about barrow wights, Tolkien was drawing on ON lit, especially the poem "The Waking of Angantyr," as well as the prehistoric burial chamber called "Wayland's Smithy," near Oxford.
    Surprising that Rateliff missed out on the trolls. Doug Anderson in The Annotated Hobbit does far better, mentioning Icelandic legends about "night-trolls," one of which was published in the Saga-Book of the Viking Society. Trolls also turn into stone in Grettis saga.