- Trolls: An Unnatural History by John Lindow
“Trolls have been around for 1,000 years, and they are not going away” (p. 13). Indeed. If you are not convinced that they are still around, type “troll” into Google.com’s search bar and get some 52,100,000 hits in 0.37 seconds.
Someone had to write a good book on trolls, ideally someone knowledgeable about trolls of all eras. John Lindow was always the obvious choice to write such a book, and now he has. Blessedly, Trolls: An Unnatural History is many things trolls are not. It is handsome, well proportioned, and not of monstrous size; it is full of knowledge, yet unintimidating. The curious person could be advised to seek out Trolls for enjoyment and edification: no special preparation is required. The chapters on medieval sources are unencumbered by looming slabs of Old Norse poetry. No undergrowth of thickety footnotes rises from the bottom margins. The information that could have populated that space is held to the end and presented in inviting prose. “Sources and Further Reading” is effectively a short annotated bibliography, though not an exhaustive one.
Not so unlike many trolls, then, the book has a double nature. It belongs to our academic world and to the world of normal human beings. It is written in Lindow’s characteristic style: lucid, economical, gently wry. Every sentence is informative, dense without being convoluted. The casual reader will move through the prose easily and learn a very great deal, but the more attentive one will learn three times as much. All will be well served by the introduction, which opens with an anecdote and proceeds smoothly into a compact explanation of the distinction between legend and fairy tale. This is essential to understanding creatures that infest both genres. It is essential, also, to understanding sincerely told accounts of encounters with trolls. Neither the first recorded skaldic verse (Norway, ca. 870) nor the faux found-footage Trollhunter (Norway, 2010) can truly be appreciated without such an understanding. The chapters that follow are arranged at once chronologically and thematically: the one system supports the other. They are “The Earliest Trolls,” “Medieval Trolls,” “Folklore Trolls,” “Fairy-Tale Trolls and Trolls Illustrated,” “Trolls in Literature,” and “Trolls, Children, Marketing, and Whimsy.” An epilogue follows.
“The Earliest Trolls” are those found in skaldic verse (attributed to a ninth-century poet), the Eddas, and some sagas. Admittedly, I am very much at home in this area, but I am confident that Lindow’s treatment will prove uncommonly accessible to those visiting from other regions. In a few deft sentences, Lindow introduces the notoriously abstruse skaldic [End Page 409] verse and makes transparent obscure kennings. The reader may care considerably less about the kenning per se than about the titular trolls, and, for them, Lindow lifts from the landscape the dense philological fog of a highly specialized field before the reader notices it was ever there. He does this without sacrificing rigor. For example, Lindow does not hide the fact that scholars sometimes emend manuscripts to make sense of apparent nonsense.
In the next chapter, “Medieval Trolls” reveal themselves to be not only those of the familiar Sagas of Icelanders but also of less commonly read mythic-heroic sagas, chivalric sagas, king’s sagas not in Heimskringla, sagas of Dietrich of Bern, Roland, Alexander the Great—some of these are from Sweden and Denmark—laws, annals, and Latin-language histories. This chapter also reaches past the edge of the usual medieval period to the 1555 Historia de gentibus septentionalibus. And why not? Trolls violate boundaries all the time. Moreover, Lindow’s medieval period is not just long but exceptionally broad. The Scandinavianist who studied a semester of Old Norse in graduate school and occasionally teaches Njáls saga will not be familiar with Alexanders saga and the like. Indeed, such texts are less frequently read even by scholars of Old Norse. Thus this chapter is valuable for rounding out the image of the Scandinavian textual landscape in the Middle Ages—one as full of Latin sources and versions...