You may have driven Trollstigen or hiked to the Troll's Tongue, but how much do you know about the mythology?
Whether it’s a tacky figurine lined up on a gift shop shelf ready to give you that ‘perfect’ souvenir, or a fluorescent haired cartoon toy aimed at entertaining children, we all know trolls. Or do we?
Trolls call me
moon of dwelling-Rungnir,
seeress’s friendly companion,
guardian of corpse-fiord,
swallower of heaven-wheel;
what is a troll other than that?
Trolls are one of the mythical creatures that are portrayed in popular culture on a regular basis.
We’ve seen them helping Queen Elsa in Frozen, trying to cook Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings and guarding bridges to the annoyance of our fairy-tale heroes. Each portrayal is slightly different from the last.
So where do our mythical trolls come from? And what are ‘proper’ trolls like? Well, the answer to that, as always, is complicated! Join us as we go into the Hall of the Mountain King and try to get to the bottom of the legends.
The origins of the mythology
As Norse mythology was mostly handed down orally, it can be difficult to get a real handle on what’s what.
Gods and monsters are referred to by different names and when we come to interpret the source material – the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda that were the best attempts at writing everything down – we find various scholars disagreeing on almost everything!
The noun troll or troll, meaning variously fiend, demon, werewolf and giant, comes from a proto-Germanic word trullan or unknown origin.
There’s much overlap in the terms jötunn (giant), troll, þurs (hostile monsters) and risi (heroic beings). Some theorize that they’re four distinct classes of beings while others believe that troll is a catch-all for ‘mischievous creatures.
What we do get a kind of agreement on, when we distil all of the arguments down, is that there are two types of troll.
Trolls of the mountain and of the forest
The first type is known as the forest or mountain troll. They’re generally depicted as large, dumb, brutish creatures akin to a large neanderthal. These are the beings that eat hobbits for dinner in Lord of the Rings or distract from Voldemort in Harry Potter.
They are said to use their connections with nature to uproot trees to use as clubs as well as being able to cause hurricanes and avalanches.
These are also the trolls whose riddles you have to solve to cross a bridge, if you ever find yourself inside a fairytale, or playing an RPG!
Trolls of the caves
Unlike their forest-dwelling cousins, cave trolls live completely underground and are generally depicted as smaller than humans with a large round abdomen and short stubby arms and legs. These are more akin to the trolls that help Queen Elsa in Frozen.
In Norse mythology, however, they’re not generally friendly to humans. They use their connections with nature to baffle and deceive humans.
No matter the type of troll, they all have some characteristics in common. Aside from being unfriendly, they’re also generally depicted as stupid and dangerous. They may set clever riddles but they’re usually easy enough for humans to overcome.
Getting the better of trolls
One tale tells of Askeladden, the youngest son of a farmer who needed wood from the forst to pay off his debts. When his first two sons went into the forest and returned empty handed – having been scared away by the troll – Askeladden went into the forest with a piece of cheese to keep him from starving.
When he encountered the angry troll, Askeladden pulled out the piece of cheese and, pretending it was a rock, squeezed it until the whey came out.
Thus, the troll was fooled and, fearing his great strength, offered to help the boy with his wood cutting.
After working hard, the troll invited the boy back to his home for a meal. As he was tending the fire, he pointed to two huge buckets and asked the boy to fetch water.
The boy realized that he couldn’t carry such massive buckets, let alone filled with water, so he claimed they were too small and that he would simply bring the whole spring instead.
The troll obviously didn’t want a whole spring in his house and so they exchanged chores. The boy tended the fire while the troll went to get water to make porridge. Once it was ready the boy suggested they have an eating contest.
They ate as much as they could, however the boy had placed his knapsack under his shirt and was filling it with the porridge, without the troll noticing. Once it was full he slashed a hole in it and continued to eat.
Once the troll was full and could eat no more, the boy suggested that the troll cut a hole in his stomach, like they boy appeared to have done, so that he could eat as much as he liked. The troll, being rather stupid, did so and promptly died. Thus, the boy took all of his gold and silver and the farmer could pay off his debts.
Other ways of driving out trolls
If you can’t get the better of a troll in an eating contest, then the best way is to ring church bells. As un-Christian beings, trolls are said to go crazy when they hear the bells and run far away.
Trolls are also repelled by lightning, which kills them – likely a result of their run-ins with Thor who is said to have hunted trolls across the land.
Some legends attest that trolls turn to stone when exposed to sunlight and that this is the source of the huge stony crags in places such as Trold-Tindterne (Troll Peaks) in Norway.
In fact, there are many places within Norway named after the creatures, from the Trollstigen mountain pass to the famous Trolltunga (Troll's Tongue) rock formation.
No matter what type of troll you encounter, you now know that all you need to do is keep your wits about you, keep a knapsack full of cheese, and hope there’s some church bells around!