Trolls after 1850

John Bauer, Stone Troll

Scandinavia after 1850 underwent a fast industrialisation process (esp. Sweden, Denmark and Southern Norway) and for the new educated classes (and their children) trolls became part of the magic world that their parents or grandparents had left behind, either for the big city or foreign land (though - in reality - often in distress and with no hope or wish to return to the countryside). These were not the supernatural beings that their ancestors had known and with whom they had lived in an imaginary symbiotic relation, who had interfered with their crops, cured or stolen their cows or exchanged their children with ugly troll children or left gold in the field for the labouring farmer. The modern trolls of John Bauer, Louis Moe or Theodore Kittelsen were pre-cultivated nature as an otherness in a parallel, almost dehumanised world, to which humans had only access through the fairy tale) and often they looked more like 4th world peoples like the Saami or Samoyed whose cultures were uncovered by contemporary anthropologists and depicted by painters looking for a more homely and innocent expression than was offered by the Classical world. Not surprisingly John Bauer illustrated a book about the Saami before he discovered and unlocked the gate to his magic world of trolls in Värmland.

Sentimentalism was an integral part of this transformation of folklore as examplified by this drawing by Louis Moe, where folklore has become a vehicle of contemporary ideas - in this case the opposition between water and land:

Trolls during the Middle Ages

Church painting of trolls from Voldby Church, Denmark

There are many Scandinavian localities with the word 'troll' in them, incl. troll forests, troll hills, troll swamps, places often uninhabitable and connected with a local tale of trolls or giants. The photo below is from Troldeskoven (Troll Forest) in Northern Sealand, Denmark, a forest famous for its strange wind-bent trees. Just like the stories of giants to explain various topological characterics, these names should not be taken to serious, more as playful storytelling. There is no evidence that these names were ever taken serious.

The Christian church fought an impossible fight to eradicate the heathen underground creatures and it is said that until the end of the Middle Ages there were still traces of the old Norse religion in Scandinavia - the same religion that has been "revived" in Iceland recently. The Church had to build its churches on old sacred places and trolls were seen as manifestations of the Devil - but popular folklore with its more humanised trolls survived till the beginning of the industrial age.

As mentioned elsewhere, trolls could also help humans building their churches. Thus Lund Cathedral in Skåne, Sweden, is allegedly built by a giant or troll called Finn and in the crypt his work is commemorated with this stone figure holding one of the pillars:

In this illustration by Niels Skovgaard to a poem by the Danish poet Poul Martin Møller a poor saint who has a troll build a church for him, has to learn the troll's name to save both his own sight and the troll-built church from being destroyed by the troll again. Fortunately he overhears the troll mother saying her husband's name Find to their troll child. And thus the church is saved.

Trolls in Rural Folklore

The relation between trolls and humans in rural Scandinavian folklore is very interesting. Trolls represent what is different, but not necessarily what is better or worse. To put it very simply (based on old folklore, not present fictional representations of troll in video games or tv animations)

Day creaturesNight creatures
Normal lookingEither very attractive or very ugly,
very big or very small
Intellect/strengthIntellect/strength/magical powers
Poor farmersThe nobility of the wilderness
Normal animalsEither bigger or much smaller animals, often more productive than humans' animals

In other words: We are physically and culturally different, live in separate but parallel dimensions (both humans and trolls have cattle, make a living from farming) but are also interdependent, e.g. during hard times when life is difficult for both farmer and troll, and may/can enter and exit each other’s dimensions – which involves some transformation – e.g. a human may leave the troll mountain richer or stronger after either tricking or helping the trolls, and trolls can learn from us (they like borrowing our tools for example) and even control us if necessary.

The Scandinavian troll in folklore is therefore very different from the European (Shrek-like) 'ogre', the devilish trolls of the Grimm brothers or even the Giant - though the troll and giant regionally may share similarities or overlap. Basically trolls are not necessarily evil or dangerous if you know how to handle them and show respect. As the Scandinavian countryside was very poor until recently, partly due to an harsher and more unpredictable nature, people suffered from high infant mortality and frequent famines, and the long distances in e.g. Norway or Sweden and the countries' late industrial development delayed migration to the bigger towns, countryfolk developed through time a warmer relation to the supernatural world as they lived with it for much longer and used the stories of riches nearby, hidden away in the mountain or soil, as a way of preserving their hopes for a better life. The stories made sense of strange natural phenomena (the changeling myth may have explained genetic diseases and missing people incl. mentally ill were thought to have been taken by the trolls) and you learned to tread carefully in the forest or on the mountain, not take anything for granted. At the same time the supernatural creatures, by being a link to a heathen past, also represented a strain of anarchism that the church tried to oppres. This battle between priest and troll was more or less an equal battle - the crucifix may, like the sun, another powerful religious symbol, have scared the trolls away, but in their world, the latter also had strong magical powers that must be taken serious, esp. as the church did not provide any cures for illnesses among humans or animals and the trolls were said to be healthy and live long lives and have very productive animals. While Christianity put down strict rules, trolldom gave some kind of crazy hope in a hard world.

This is what Ebbe Schön in Troll has to say about the syntesis between religion and folklore: In rural society these made up together a belief system which was of great use during most phases of life. Despite Christianity being an exclusive religion that reduced folklore to pure devil worship (that should be banned), the whole set of beliefs in trolls and giants etc. didn't just create fear, but also safety and mental stability by making an otherwise hard and unintelligible world more intelligible and teaching people how to act or not to act.

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