Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Trolls: An Unnatural History, by John Lindow

What is a troll? That's the question answered (sort of) by the very first troll on record, a troll-woman who accosted the 9th-century Viking skáld Bragi the Old on a deserted forest track late one night and challenged him to a poetry match.

Trolls call me moon of the dwelling-Rungnir, she declaimed: giant's wealth-sucker, storm-sun's bale, seeress's friendly companion, guardian of corpse-fjord, swallower of heaven wheel: what is a troll other than that?

In an earlier post I talked about how difficult it is to understand Viking poetry (see "The Viking Art of Poetry"). What do these kennings--giant's wealth-sucker, storm-sun's bale--mean? John Lindow, in his book Trolls: An Unnatural History (Reaktion Books 2014), only explains one of them: swallower of heaven wheel means "swallower of the sun or moon," which in Norse mythology is a wolf.

Is this troll a wolf? A shapeshifting werewolf? A wolf-like monster? Who knows--all that matters is, it's scary. Says Lindow, "The exchange between Bragi and the troll woman forms a paradigm that will often recur: a threatening encounter, in a place far from human habitation, between troll and human, with the human emerging unscathed in the end."

The trolls always lose. Remember that. It will help when you see how long-lived and nasty these creatures can be.

Through the Viking Age, the Saga Age, and into Iceland's Sturlung Age, when the Icelandic sagas were being written, trolls were a kind of malevolent land spirit. A woman who throws a love token away is said to have given it to the trolls. A warrior swears, "May the trolls take me if I never again redden my sword with blood." These trolls were "associated with the Other," Lindow notes: "the mysterious, inexplicable, and unknowable. … Or to put it another way," he adds later, "as the giants are to the gods in the mythology, so trolls are to humans."

Not until the later Middle Ages, will trolls take on the form familiar to us, the kind of ugly, stupid monster that appears in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. In Illuga saga Griðarfóstra (written as late as the 15th century), an Icelandic youth enters a cave in search of fire. He hears the heavy footsteps of the cave dweller and sees a decidedly un-wolflike troll woman:

He thought a storm or squall was blowing out of her nostrils. Mucus was hanging down in front of her mouth. She had a beard but her head was bald. Her hands were like the claws of an eagle, but both arms were singed and the baggy shirt she was wearing reached no lower than her loins in back but all the way to her toes in front. Her eyes were green and her forehead broad; her ears fell widely. No one would call her pretty.

This paragon of ugliness persists in our imagination largely due to folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, who published a collection of Norwegian fairy tales in the 1840s. There we read: "'under that bridge lived a big, ugly troll, with eyes like pewter plates, and a nose as long as a rake handle.' Everybody knows this story," says Lindow. It's "The Three Billy Goats Gruff."

Of the ugly troll woman in the Icelandic cave, Lindow remarks: "What I find most striking about this description is the blurring of categories: male/female (beard and bald head), animal/human (claws), immodest/chaste (her garment). Such blurring suggests powerful operation of the imagination in creating the degree of otherness as it plays with the very shiftiness of trolls."

Blurring, otherness, shiftiness--and ugliness--these are the characteristics of the trolls that populate Scandinavian folk tales. In Sweden, "The trolls could change their shape," wrote folklorist Gunnar Olof Hylten-Cavallius, "and take on any sort of form whatever, such as hollowed-out trees, stumps, animals, skeins of yarn, rolling balls, etc."

Adds Lindow, "Trolls come at night. The night belongs to them, and they belong to the night." That's why--as Tolkien taught us--trolls turn to stone if the sun hits them. Actually, Lindow points out, that's only true for Icelandic trolls. According to Hylten-Cavallius, in Sweden it's giants whom the sun turns to stone. When Swedish trolls see the sun, they burst--pop!--and disappear.

Blurring, otherness, shiftiness, ugliness, and now darkness--or invisibility--or a dread of the light of truth… It didn't take long for literary artists to seize on the metaphor of the troll. When the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen in 1867 sent Peer Gynt into the Hall of the Mountain King, the troll-king asked, "What is the difference between trolls and humans?"

Answered Peer, "There is no difference, as far as I can tell. Big trolls want to cook me and small trolls want to claw me--same with us, if they only dared."

Norwegian author Jonas Lie said the same in his collection of stories, Trolls, published in 1891. In an introduction, he wrote: That there is something of the troll in human beings, everyone knows who has an eye for such things. It is situated inside in the personality and binds it like the immoveable mountain, the fickle sea, and violent weather...

He writes of seeing the troll inside an old lawyer: a strikingly wooden face, eyes like two dull opaque glass stones, a strangely certain power of judgment, not liable to be moved or led astray by impulses. His surroundings blew off him like weather and wind; his mind was so absolutely certain … Trolldom lives in that stage inside people as a temperament, natural will, explosive force.

Trolls in modern literature not only "threaten us from the outside," says Lindow, "but they can lurk inside, too."

Which brings us to today's trolls: Internet trolls. According to one list Lindow quotes, the wilderness of the web is populated by "plain trolls, bashing trolls, smartass trolls, non-caring trolls, opinion trolls, 12-year-old trolls, blaming trolls." They continue to be ugly, shifty, fearing the light.

"In the old tradition, people who spent time in the world of the trolls described it mostly as unpleasant," Lindow concludes, "and I cannot say that my brief visit to the world of today's trolls was in any way pleasant. Yet I experienced, ever more strongly, the fact that we cannot truly know trolls. If we could, they would not be trolls. This holds for the very first trolls, found in Viking Age poetry, through the trolls who populated the wilds of Scandinavia, to the trolls in books, films, and the Internet. Trolls are what we are not, or what we think we are not. Or was Jonas Lie right? Could there be a bit of troll in each of us?"
Trolls: An Unnatural History by John Lindow was published in 2014 by Reaktion Books.

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