May 30, 2015

Hobbit Origins: Trolls

Over the course of the semester-long Hobbit class I taught for middle-schoolers earlier this year we looked at many of the different legends and ancient stories that inspired Tolkien's mythology.  For this Origins post here on MOAT I'm taking another look at one of our favorite topics, trolls...

As Douglas A. Anderson notes in his excellent and well-researched, The Annotated Hobbit, he takes time to mention a lecture given in 1926 by Helen Bruckhurst, a friend and colleague of J.R.R. Tolkien.  In her paper, Bruckhurst took a deep look at Icelandic folklore and, naturally, trolls were featured prominently.

"The Icelandic Trolls, as depicted both in the Sagas and in more recent tales, are huge, misshapen creatures, bearing some resemblance to human form, but always hideously ugly.  They make their homes among the rocks of in the lava.  They are almost always malignant in disposition, and frequently descend at night upon outlying farms in order to carry off sheep and horses, children, or even grown men and women, to devour in their mountain homes... 
...some kinds of trolls have no power except during the hours of darkness; during the day they must remain hidden in their caves, for the rays of the sun turn them into stone." Saga-Book, vol. 10 (emphasis added) 
Stone formations like these in Iceland were believed to be trolls
that got caught in the sun.
(I assume time did not permit for Bruckhurst to extrapolate on other cultures, but it should be noted that trolls in Norwegian folktales burst into pieces when caught in the sun.)

Tolkien would have been familiar with his colleague's work and he would have most certainly been familiar with the original stories and legends himself.  It then becomes obvious to see as to where the most striking characteristics of Tolkien's Stone-trolls come from.  This kind of "borrowing" from ancient legends was an integral aspect of Tolkien's creative process.  He took his favorite elements of European mythologies and repurposed them to give them new meanings and places in his own grand history of Middle-earth.


"Stone Trolls" by Angelo Montanini
Finally, to conclude this post I'll close with a short story from Icelandic mythology that Bruckhurst included in her paper, "The Night Troll."  Hobbit fans will notice further similarities to the "Roast Mutton" chapter besides the ending.  The girl in the story does not evoke mental images similar to Gandalf the Grey, but their intent in both episodes is the same.









The Night Troll

Translated by George E.J. Powell and EirÍkur Magnússon from Jón Árnason’s, Islenzkar Pjódsögur Og Æfintyri, Volume 1

            At a certain farm it befell that whoever had to keep watch over the house of Yule night, while the rest of the household was at Midnight Mass, was found either dead or mad next morning.  Folk were troubled about this, and few were willing to sit at home of Yule night.  One year a girl volunteered to look after the house, whereat the others were glad, and went to church.  The girl sat down on the bench in the living-room, talking and crooning to a child she had on her knee.  During the night there came a Thing to the window, and said:

            “Fair in my sight is that hand of thing –
            My brisk one, my brave one, sing dillido!”

Then she sang:
            “Filth has it never swept from the floor
            Foul fiend Kari, sing korriro!”

Then the Thing at the window:
            “Fair in my sight is that eye of thing –
            My brisk one, my brave one, sing dillido!”

Then sang she:
            “Evil it has never looked upon,
            Foul fiend Kari, sing korriro!”

Then the Thing at the window:
            “Fair in my sight is that foot of thing –
            My brisk one, my brave one, sing dillido!”

Then sang she:
            “Nought unclean has it trodden upon,
            Foul fiend Kari, sing korriro!”

Then said the Thing at the window:
            “Day now dawns in the eastern sky,
            My brisk one, my brave one, sing dillido!”

Then she sang:
            “Dawn now hath caught thee, a stone shalt thou be,
            And no man henceforth shall be harmed by thee,
            Foul fiend Kari, sing korriro!”


     Then the spectre vanished from the window; and when the people of the house came in the morning, they saw a great stone standing between the ridges of the roof; and there it has stood ever since.  The girl told them what she had heard; but of what the troll was like she could say nothing, for she had never looked towards the window.


WRONG.  This is why Tolkien hated Disney.

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