The Artistic Troll

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 mounAMorningInMarchtain 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.



This entry was posted in Critical thoughts, Fun stuff and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Artistic Troll

  1. Lucy Northenra says:

    Hi Kaja,
    I absolutely love this post. I have to confess to also being obsessed with the story De tre bukkene Bruse or The Three Billy Goats Gruff- Bill knows this. It was my bedtime story of choice for many years when I was a child and I had the Ladybird book which I knew off by heart (and still do). “Who is that trip trapping over my bridge”roared the troll , “it is only me the youngest Billy Goat Gruff I am going across to the meadow to eat the sweet grass” , ‘” then I am coming to gobble you up roared the troll”…
    In adult life I have not given trolls much thought but I do have a Finnish friend who knows a lot about them (Billy Goats Gruff is Norweigan as you say). The artist you mention looks very interesting. That picture reminds me of one by Rackham which I will post up in response. I didn’t know that Holly Black has Trolls…I think there might be some in the Never Never in ‘The Iron King’. I used to have a few and they had bright pink and orange hair and came with a little comb for styling them…ha ha… troll trend setters. My niece collects Smurfs! Seriously though I would like to know more about the folkloric troll….where is my Briggs…I need to look them up now. Thanks Kaja. We should start an A-Z of folkloric creatures on this blog. Black Dogs, Selkies and Trolls…what will be next?

    • William the Bloody says:

      Great post, Kaja! I love Holly Black’s *Valiant*, which is a reworking of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, with troll as Beast, and part of her brilliant, gritty, YA urban fantasy/paranormal romance Modern Faerie trilogy.

      • firekrank says:

        Glad you guys liked this! I’ve been talking to my neighbour, who is from Trinidad, about her favourite national folklore. It’s made me sad that most of the fairy tales and folk lore that I know is from other nations. So I’ve been trying to think about what myths, legends, and creatures have preyed on my imagination. (I might have to write about will-o-wisps being a Fenlander). One of Astrup’s paintings featured a scandinavian water horse who, like the kelpie, tricks humans into riding it and then drowns them. That was quite thrilling. However I did wonder whether there are many people who still actively believe in kelpies and how the these tales are kept alive.

        ‘Valiant’ is amazing. The identities of the Beauty and the Beast shift regularly and it’s great to have a strong female heroine who doesn’t conform to stereotypes.

        I’m a little sad that I didn’t mention ‘Frozen’. The first time we watched it was with my Swedish friend – who was rather disparaging of the broad, non-specific, stereotyped Nordicism that the movie evoked. However, my mum loved it and we now have a new family tradition of watching it every Christmas. I think my mum loved the feminist re-working after years of the typical Disney princess and also it features two sisters (I have a younger sister). More excitingly, ‘Frozen’ also features trolls! Magical, wise trolls! Though I am sure purists will hate how they are represented, I liked how they were re-imagined for a new generation and hopefully it will mean more children are encouraged to find out more.

  2. William the Bloody says:

    Oh, just an observation: trolls are not just Norwegian, but Scandinavian generally, and are found originally in the old Norse myths. Finland has its trolls, and Tove Jannson transformed them into Moomintroll and his family in her delightful and melancholic stories.
    I remember the troll craze of the sixties; my mum had (at least) one. But I had never heard the tale of Billy Goat Gruff until Sam terrified me with it.

    • firekrank says:

      Indeed they are – at the exhibition they had some great editions of Tove Jannson. My partner had a little wood cut troll (think a more authentic and folk version of their plastic counterpart) in his room when he was younger which he got on holiday in Norway. I didn’t know there was a troll craze in the sixties.

  3. Daryl Wor says:

    So brilliant. I was gliding along seeing trolls in both a new light, and in shades I remember from many of the selections mentioned. It is a breath of relief to come here for a true testament to metaphors and how storytelling has affected, or related, our understanding of life throughout the ages.

    Also the sense that you were touched in various forms of both the splendour and the grotesque. Again we see through the veils of time and maturity, trolls showing us the sad state of affairs, or reminding us how to break free from the cages we built around our souls.

    • firekrank says:

      Thank you so much. I’m so glad you enjoyed this and our other posts. It was certainly a personal reaction and, if I get time, I really want to maybe write about some of the other figures that have had a powerful affect on my imagination.

  4. Lucy Northenra says:

    Kaja has some Danish blood remember Bill so she is likely to be familiar with Scandinavian myth. There is a lot of folklore in Cumbria where I was born and believe it or not my Grandfather on my mother’s side was Manx! I really should have become a folklorist. I need that dictionary of Briggs as I only have the fairy one. Routledge have bought out beautiful reprints which I want to collect but they do the whole set of volumes of her dictionary too. I might order it now for the library as I can’t afford it myself alas. I will get the abridged one as I can’t resist it now. I think trolls can be associated with the spirits of the dead and in that they do inhabit places Kaja and ancient sites or forests. Should we start a folkloric reading group? I love the fairy courts in Kagawa. Would love to get her for a conference.
    I am glad you mentioned Moomins Bill but I was always confused by how they are trolls as they look like hippos. I think they are a bit Selkie. I love the names like Snork maiden. My niece Miranda collects Moominobelia. We should all go to Moominland in Finland. Ulrika says there are bears there nearby too (not sure about wolves).

  5. Lucy Northenra says:

    You might enjoy delving into some Icelandic folklore Kaja which is rich in trolls and elves
    There is still widespread belief in Trolls there and it is not unusual to have an elf or fairy door painted in your garden. Huldufolk appear to hate electricity so maybe a link to technology and the fey here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

19 + 11 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.