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?