You may have first encountered a Troll in nursery rhyme; living under a bridge, with “eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker.” You may have encountered them in There and Back Again, A Hobbit’s Tale, carnivorous giants that turn to stone in the sunlight. Or you may only know of the ones that trawl the internet.
Wherever you encounter them, trolls by and large are the same; giants, for the most part, of carnivorous or malicious intent, usually according to a dire bargain, for example in the story of Esbern Snare who was building a church in Kalundborg. It was hard work, and a troll, who was passing by, offered his services. Esbern accepted; however, the troll’s condition was that Esbern should be able to figure out the troll’s name by the time the church was finished; if he could not, the troll would take his heart and his eyes. Happily, Esbern heard the song of a troll-woman, singing of her love, and deduced that the troll working for him was named “Fin.”
Those of you into the Scandinavian metal scene may recognize this story as perhaps an inspiration for the thematic metal band, Finntroll, whose music is based on trolls, usually in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, presented as a naturalist, alcohol-loving and viciously anti-human (henceforth anti-Christian) race.
So what is a troll? How do we define one in relation to the many anthropomorphic myths and legends abounding? Unfortunately, trolls seem to inhabit a kind of middle realm between distinct definitions.
Myriad depictions have come to range from the fiendish giants – similar to the ogres of England – to a devious, more human-like folk of the wilderness, living underground in hills, caves or mounds. Oversized ears and noses seem to be a general feature, however, which is the first delineation from giants. However, the close relation between giants and trolls lies in their stature and behavior, often described as ugly or having beastly features like tusks or cyclopic eyes, the two are considered one throughout Scandinavia. This form of troll is epitomized in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.
In later times, as myths changed, trolls took on new attributes; masters of guile, they could pass for human but for a telling flaw – a hidden tail, inappropriate dress, or even a lock of hair no human could comb. They became mischievous and would live in mounds of earth or in underground complexes, much like dwarves. Similar to the fey folk, troll women were said to lure men away to become pets or lovers, and would be found alone and wandering the woods decades later, with no recollection of their time with a troll.
This later development was not free of maliciousness, however. Trolls were said to spirit away men and babies; the former to be used as slaves, returned decades later as dullards, while the latter would sometimes be replaced with their own offspring.