Trolls were originally creatures in Norwegian legend. They were thought to be huge, evil and dangerous, having a taste for human flesh. Sometimes, however, they could interact with people peacefully. They generally lived in forests and mountains, in caves or among rocks.
They were often referred to as hording large amounts of gold and silver, which they had presumably stolen. Laying one’s hands on these treasures was one of the chief rewards of getting the better of them.
How did the stories come about?
Troll Wall in Norway
According to some stories, when a troll was exposed to sunlight he turned to stone. In fact, one famous legend has it that the stone crags of a place called Trold-Tindterne (Troll Peaks) in central Norway are the remains of two armies of trolls that once fought a great battle—until sunrise caught them.
This legend gives a possible clue as to how the stories about trolls may have come about. The rocky outcrops of Norwegian mountains often give the appearance of monstrous humans.
Are there any other explanations?
Neanderthal statues at the Neanderthal Museum
Some modern scholars have also proposed another origin for such stories. As modern humans spread across Europe, from around 50,000 years ago, they encountered other races of humans, whom we now call the Neanderthals. These were large, heavy-jawed, heavy browed people – though with a brain as large as ours’.
The care with which they buried their dead suggests that they had similar emotions to those of our ancestors and that they had imagination enough to grasp the idea of an afterlife - they were not the half-humans that early archaeologists painted them as being. However, given the amount of racial prejudice there is still between members of different branches of our own species, it is easy to see how our ancestors will have viewed humans of another species who looked different from themselves and who lived on land that they wanted. There is no particular evidence that our ancestors systematically slaughtered the Neanderthals but, within a few thousand years, all the Neanderthals were dead.
So the legends of the trolls may have come about from the competition for survival between Neanderthals and ourselves all those thousands of years ago.
What are trolls like?
Troll warning sign
Huge and dangerous they may have been, but trolls had a major weak point – their low intelligence. Some stories make them clever at building and making things of stone and metal, but they were easily outwitted by heroes with courage and cunning. These heroes often showed treachery and extreme cruelty in what they did, but that was OK – their victims were only trolls, after all.
In most stories trolls merely appear as the foils of heroes, and are not really described in any detail. Where their features are referred to they appear very differently. For example, one story mentions a fight with some trolls, in which one has six heads, and another nine (which are of course all lopped off); but most stories have trolls as larger and uglier version of fairly standard humans.
The main purpose of most of these stories is to provide a stage for a hero’s exploits: the hero is often the youngest of three sons as in our tale; the other brothers see him as good for nothing; however he shows courage and cunning whilst his brothers are useless. The hero ends up getting the better of the troll; his reward is the troll’s treasure, the king’s daughter and half the kingdom to boot!
The troll still appears in modern times. For example, in JRR Tolkein’s book, The Hobbit, the hero, Bilbo Baggins, and his dwarf companions encounter three trolls in a forest. All the dwarfs fall into the troll’s trap, but they are saved by Bilbo, who gets the trolls to argue amongst themselves. They are so busy arguing that they do not notice the sun rising.