Trolls! When I was a child growing up in Norway, just the mention of that word sent chills down my spine. Trolls were everywhere: in the mountains, in the forests, certainly under bridges, and even in our house. One of my favorite memories is of my father, pillows stuffed under his shirt to enlarge his towering 6-foot-3-inch frame, storming into our bedroom at night roaring, “I smell the smell of human flesh!” Trolls were even in the words we used. When I was bad my mother called me “en trollunge,” a troll child. And, of course, trolls were in the stories – the stories I adored and always begged for. Now, having been a storyteller for more than twenty years, I find American children also begging for “just one more troll story.” What are trolls and why do children love them so much?
Trolls are giants shaped by the ancient Norse mythology and by the towering Scandinavian landscape. Long before there were people, there were trolls. According to Norse mythology, the first thing in the world was a huge, wild frost giant named Ymir (ee-meer). From his feet sprouted the race of the trolls. The first troll had six heads and six arms and quickly grew to a monstrous size. Ever since, Norway has been inhabited by these giants.
Clearly, one aspect of children’s fascination with trolls is that they make the very landscape come alive. Not only are trolls of the landscape, they also return to and shape the landscape around them when they die. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of walking in the woods with my mother when I was about three. We ambled along the trail in the dark old-growth forest filled with filtered sunlight, when my mother suddenly grabbed my arm and whispered, “Look! There’s a troll” I actually thought my last moment had come, until I saw where she pointed: to a dead troll that had turned into an overturned tree root. Together we examined the troll, found his nose, arms, and even his eye sockets. It was a magical moment, and to this day I point out all the dead trolls in the landscape to my children and their friends: A huge rock pile is a troll that burst, a tree root lying on its side is an ancient troll, an oddly shaped rock may be part of a nose. One summer my eight- year-old son, swimming in Lake Superior, spotted an unusually round white rock. He dove for it and proudly emerged with a “troll’s eyeball.”
But perhaps the greatest reason children love troll stories is because children need stories like them. Nothing can truly show children, even adults, more about how to live, about who they are, and about their place in the world, and the struggles of life than a good folktale, and these troll stories I count among the best. Yet today many children have never heard any of the great folktales, including troll stories.
As a society we have come to think of folktales as amusing entertainment, quaint relics of the past. We certainly do not view them as vehicles for understanding. Yet folktales explore issues as complex as the nature of good and evil, and the triumph of kindness and patience over bullying and anger. Folktales reveal universal truths. Take the story of “Butterball,” a perennial favorite in my storytelling sessions. In this story a troll hag, carrying her head under her armpit, captures a silly, butter-loving boy because he ignores his mother’s advice. The troll hag orders her daughter to cook stew out of Butterball while she fetches her husband, the troll. In the end this seemingly silly boy outwits the daughter and gets rid of the entire troll pack. This story is the most frequently requested story in my repertoire. I had always thought its principal attraction was the hideous troll herself, who carried her head under her armpit, until one day a child blurted out, “How come Butterball is so stupid while he is at home with his mom, but when he is on his own he manages just fine?” After years of telling this story the compelling element, immediately spotted by a child, had completely escaped me: your family, your community can help, but ultimately you have what you need to succeed inside yourself. Strength comes from within.
Because they speak to our inner circumstances, great folktales speak to all children, regardless of age, gender, and outer circumstances. Recently I told troll stories to a group of children, ages three through thirteen. Despite the disparity in ages, the children sat equally spellbound as story after story unfolded. I was reminded of what a psychologist had told me about children’s fascination with trolls and with folktales in general. He believes these stories bypass later brain development and go directly to the ancient part of the brain, where they reside right next to fire. What a lovely image and how appropriate! The way children sit around a fire, the way they are warmed by it, is exactly the way they sit when listening to a good story. Like fire, a good story is slightly dangerous, spellbinding, and warming.
Fire, anthropologists tell us, is one of the elements that separates humans from animals. Basically four main practices make us human:
This means that a love of story is part of what makes us human; it is innate and it helps us to survive. We need fire, and we need to hunt, to gather, to fashion clothes, and to till the soil for our physical survival. While ritual and storytelling now many seem unnecessary for the survival of the body, they are necessary for the survival of the soul.
Think of the lives of so many children today. Do they get much of what helps their soul and humanity survive? Do they sit around campfires, have candlelit dinners? Can they garden? Do they learn to draw, to whittle, to knot, to weave, to sew, to fashion things of clay? Do they get to hear great stories? Many children receive so little of what nourishes their soul that it seems as though they turn from a positive expression of their humanity to a destructive one: They grasp fire, but it becomes arson; they want to use tools, but the tools become guns; they want to till the soil, but their world is paved over, so they ransack and destroy; and there is less and less ritual and structure in their family life, so they seek the ritual and structure of gangs. Such children are clearly grasping for their humanity, but it seems we do not know how to help them find it.
Telling or reading folktales is one way to cultivate a child’s soul and humanity. With their ancient symbolic images, such stories reach deep inside children to connect them with their essential nature. Troll stories do this better than many folktales because the troll acts as such a clear foil to the hero or heroine. Everything about the troll is contradictory to human nature: They are enormous, grotesque creatures with superhuman strength. They are full of treachery and falseness and stand for all that is base and evil. To fight trolls, you can’t be like them or use their weapons. Thus, battling trolls brings out the very best in those who dare confront them: intelligence and ingenuity, courage and persistence, kindness and pluck, and the ability of men and women to rely on what each has to offer. To do battle with a troll is to learn to draw the best of our humanity.
Children’s feelings are never misplaced in troll stories, and they soon learn to trust them. Here right and wrong are kept steadily in sight. In a world where children are confused by a myriad of opposing and shifting values, these stories serve as a rudder. They teach eternal truths about how to live that will never become irrelevant.
Here are fifteen of the most basic lessons I have found repeated over thirty years as a storyteller.
Over and over again, in wonderful, fanciful stories, these themes are repeated in a predictable formula that mirrors the child’s view of the world. Children, like the heroes and heroines in these stories, perceive their lives to be constantly threatened. Will I lose a tooth? Will I be invited to play? Will I learn to read? By living a life immersed in great stories and themes, children will see that they have the resources needed to solve life’s struggles. And, while listening to these stories, children can rest for a while in a world that mirrors their own, full of magic and the possibility of greatness that lies within the human heart.
So light a candle, or better yet, light the fire, gather the children, and enjoy the spell of the trolls.