The word 'troll' is the root for many words in the realm of magic and the supernatural in the Scandinavian languages. To practice magic is trolla in Swedish, troldmann is Danish for magician and trolsk is a Norwegian adjective describing something magical and eerie.
'Troll' also carries certain connotations of behaviour and appearance. If you call someone a troll you indicate they are less than pretty, uncouth and inconsiderate1. A misbehaving child can be called a trollunge or, literally, 'troll-baby' or '-child'. Shakespeare'sThe Taming of the Shrew is called 'Trolls can be Tamed' in Norwegian (Troll kan temmes) and Danish (Trold kan tæmmes).
It's unsurprising then to discover that 'troll' has been used as a generic word for malicious supernatural creatures and as the word for specific mythical creatures of various descriptions all over Scandinavia. This makes it difficult to say exactly what a troll really is so this entry will explain by example, using the descriptions of trolls in Norwegian Folk Tales by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe2.
Trolls in Folklore
Trolls are likely descended from the 'Jotun'3 of Norse Mythology. The Jotun were the enemies of the gods and were for the most part kept out of the human world by the vigilance of the gods. They lived in remote hills, forests and mountains and awaited the end of the world when they would do battle with the gods.
The trolls kept the mountains as their home, but they were no longer waiting to do battle with the gods. Instead they were fighting a losing battle against Christianity. Many large boulders in the vicinity of churches have stories about trolls attempting to wreck the building, often to still the church bells which would bother them even in their mountain homes. The boulders are then either something thrown by the troll, or the troll itself surprised by sunrise and turned to stone.
In some of the tales supernatural beings, human in appearance, are called trolls, evidence of the generic use of the word. Real trolls, however, are big and ugly and sometimes don't have the regular number of body parts for a humanoid shape.
The tale of The Boys who Met the Trolls in the Heddal Forest describes three trolls as tall as the trees, sharing one single eye. They take it in turns to use this eye, until one of the boys in the story steals it and holds it hostage for a large amount of gold and silver from the Trolls' hoard.
The most famous troll of all, the one in The Three Billy Goats Gruff, lives under a bridge that crosses a waterfall. It has eyes the size of tin plates and a nose as long as a rake. Although human proportions do not apply, it has to be fairly large to accommodate such features.
A particular type of Norwegian fairy tale has a progression of trolls the hero has to overcome. The first troll has three heads, the second six and the last has nine heads. Even more heads are possible, as a large cave in one mountain, tall as a church spire, but very shallow, is described as a portal into the supernatural realm big enough for the largest of the trolls, one that has 15 heads.
Habitat and Behaviour
Trolls live inside hills and mountains and rarely close to humans. The inside of the hill can be but a simple dwelling, but it can also be a whole domain with houses and farmlands. Humans and trolls often come into conflict because trolls are territorial and claim an area around the entrance to their homes; because they like to steal valuables, like princesses; and because they often posses great riches, not only in gold and silver, but also in magic objects. Often the conflict involves all of the above.
Trolls are seldom intelligent and often downright stupid. Although they can smell the Christian blood of an uninvited visitor, a clever princess can always fool them by telling a tale of a bird recently dropping a human thighbone or something similar down the chimney.
Trolls eat the same things as humans, only in larger quantities. They have no scruples about eating human flesh, but can be fooled with a stick or similar to think you're not fat enough yet to be tasty.
An encounter with a troll is an opportunity for acquiring riches, potentially a princess and a kingdom, but also for losing your life quickly and brutally4. Only try it if:
You are an only child, or the youngest of three brothers, or the youngest of the company of three you are travelling in.
You have shown kindness and compassion to unfortunates you have met on your journey, and kept any innocent looking trinkets they might have given you.
You are in possession of magical objects.
You are a right clever lad.
If the above list does not apply to you and you find yourself near a troll, you might want to run for safety.
From Scandinavian folklore, to early fantasists like Tolkien, the idea of the troll has spread throughout the worlds of Fantasy and Fantasy Role Playing. A few examples are:
Tolkien's trolls are fairly true to the description above. They are big, ugly and can't bear sunlight. They are even more stupid than the fairy tale troll though. They are described as unintelligent and inherently evil, skulking through night and caverns. The three trolls in The Hobbit are exceptions to the rule, speaking the language of men and being less stupid.
The trolls of Terry Pratchett's Discworld are also big, stupid and ugly. The explanation for their aversion to sunlight, however, is unusual. They are silicon-based life forms, moving rocks, and their brains can't handle heat. The warmer it gets, the slower the brain functions, until you can't tell trolls from rocks.
Role Playing Games
Some Role Playing Games have trolls as a player race. In the Earthdawn game they are stronger and bigger than men, and less interested in intellectual pursuits. They live in clans and are great fighters. These are more like big, ugly, stupid people than fairy tale trolls.
Other games (eg, AD&D) have trolls as monsters, in which case they are more likely to be the big, ugly, stupid man-eaters of the fairy tales.
Originally unrelated to the fairy tale troll, the 'Internet Troll', first appeared on Usenet. The term originally referred to the practice of writing posts that deliberately antagonized 'newbies' and hot-heads and made them post an angry reply. The term also applies to such posts themselves - it comes from the phrase 'trolling for newbies' after the more mundane method of fishing for Osteichthyes.
Though amusing for those in the know, trolling can easily get out of hand, and those who had no interest in anything else became known as trolls, partly because they only trolled and partly because their behaviour was uncouth and inconsiderate.