I love studying the Gothic. I love exploring the twisted realms of the imagination. I love the creatures hidden in the pages of books that follow me home at night. (I can live with the shadows on my walls transforming into threatening figures). And amidst all the reading, and watching, and listening, and thinking, are moments of serendipity, synchronicity, and sometimes simply hauntings.
This post is dedicated to one creature that has hidden itself amongst the crepuscular moments of my mind: the troll. Trolls have never been my supernatural creature of choice but they have lurked. They arrived in my childhood under the bridge in ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’. Then emerged again in my parents’ jokes about me clomping on un-carpeted stairs in my teenage high heels.
It seems apt then that they re-emerged recently during a visit from my mum and dad. We attended a wonderful exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery of Nikolai Astrup’s (1880-1928) paintings. Nikolai Astrup is Norway’s most famous painter and deservedly so. He was inspired by the folk tales of his region, including those of the troll and it was his painting ‘A Morning in March’ (c. 1920 and reproduced below) that particularly caught my attention. The foreground is overpowered by the willow tree which is heavily anthropomorphised. In the background, glimpsed between the trees is the mountain range known as the ‘Ice Queen’ which has been transformed by Astrup into a snow-white female figure. In other versions, Astrup plays on the juxtaposition between the prone figure of the mountains and the monstrous form of the willow by presenting the tree as a troll.
Later in the exhibition there was a room in which a contemporary piece was housed as a reaction to Astrup’s relationship with Norwegian folklore. In a dimly lit rotunda were two screens depicting a woodland scene. Movement sensors caught the presence of the audience revealing that the beautiful scenery was home to fey creatures. Eyes emerged from the undergrowth and scabrous faces looked at the viewer from the bark of fallen trees. Like Astrup’s painting, the landscape was both home to sentient supernatural creatures but also embodied by them.
Inspired by my brush with Astrup’s trolls, I picked up Trolls: An Unnatural History (2014) by John Lindow at the museum shop. Though I have yet to finish it, the title started me thinking about my own unnatural history with trolls. For much of my childhood, and thanks mainly to the influence of Tolkien, trolls were stupid, ugly creatures with a penchant for human flesh and a tendency to turn into stone in the sunlight. J.K. Rowling continued this theme although with the added image of troll bogies besmirching Harry’s wand (Danger Classification: XXXX). Or they had incredibly bright hair and, if you were lucky, a jewel in their belly button.
In my late teens, I read Holly Black’s Valiant (2005) which was the first time I could imagine a troll being attractive. Her novel features a young(ish) troll who tutors a teenage girl in sword fighting. Perhaps it was my age but Black’s descriptions of the troll’s stoney smell made me think of petrichor and the taste of the air on a mountain top. Neil Gaiman’s ‘Troll Bridge’ (1993), which is being re-released later this year with illustrations by Colleen Doran (a fact I stumbled on earlier this evening as I was considering this post – further proof of hauntings), returned to my youthful troll under the bridge. This time however the story was disconcerting not due to the possibility of being consumed; rather the troll had become a symbol of the loss of childhood and the loneliness of adulthood and chances not taken, adventures unexperienced. (The first time I read it was during the OGOM Company of Wolves conference. It was a salutary reminder of what I had done and how far I was from becoming the troll under the bridge).
The movie Troll Hunter (2010; UK 2011) rampaged into my vision as as a reminder of the damage we were doing to the landscape and the secret parts of nature that reminded hidden from human view. The students’ delight at uncovering trolls is quickly destroyed by the knowledge that this archaic creature of their childhood is both dangerous and endangered. Folk tales are replaced with conspiracy theories and an ancient ‘natural’ way of life is replaced with pylons and roads into the wilderness.
Perhaps my favourite troll text, however, is a book a stumbled upon in a second-hand store, Not Before Sundown (2000) by Johanna Sinisalo. Sparsely and elegantly written, though granted I read it in English and not the original Finnish, it weaves together complex ideas about sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, nature, ecology, bestiality and the future of humanity. The novel follows Mikael, a photographer, who discovers a young troll outside his apartment and decides to save it. In this version of reality, trolls are creatures once thought to only exist in folk lore who are re-discovered living in the forests of Finland. Mikael’s decision to keep the troll, who he names Pessi, is partially motivated through his desire to capture a piece of Gothic wilderness which otherwise alludes him in his stagnant city life. Of all the trolls I’ve encountered, it is perhaps Pessi who has repeatedly slunk through my subconscious – gently prodding me as a reminder that there are more things in heaven and earth.