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Big, Ugly, Strong, and Stupid

All about trolls.

Watercolor by John Bauer, from Among Gnomes and Trolls, 1913.

If you enroll in a class called “Trolls, Giants, and Dwarves,” you can expect only magic. Frank Hugus, a professor in German and Scandinavian studies at UMass Amherst since 1970, takes students spelunking through folktales from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Iceland to gain a deep understanding of the myths that underlie those cultures like caverns under mountains. 

Understanding a culture’s myths is key to comprehending the mind-sets that give rise to its art and literature. Like trolls, those might seem invisible if you don’t know what to look for.  Sometimes all you need is some magical ointment on your eyes to see them—or the benefit of a humanities course—for they are always right there.  

Professor Hugus rounded up some troll takeaways to keep in mind during your next journey through the enchanted forest. 


1. Trolls are not your friends.

I want to disabuse you of any notion that trolls are nice creatures,” says Hugus. “Trolls are generally considered to be very big, very ugly, very strong, and very stupid.”


2. What's the difference between a troll and a giant?

“Not much!” laughs Hugus. Germans don’t have trolls in their fairy tales . . . because they have giants. Trolls are strictly Scandinavian in origin. Think of these big humanoids as inhabiting an ecological niche, or a narrative niche. “You can often make a one-to-one correspondence from how giants interact with humans to how trolls interact with humans,” says Hugus, with the slight distinction that “giants are sometimes more intelligent than trolls.”


3. Trolls have been known to mix it up with humans in more than one way.

Troll women can be beautiful (a tail is their “tell”). For instance, in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Dovregubben, “the old geezer of the mountains,” is an impoverished troll who wants to marry off his good-looking daughter to the hero. Or, trolls may be after something other than your money: “They don’t like Christianity; they are threatened by religion,” says Hugus of these pagan nature spirits. “However, lacking a soul, they cannot go to heaven, so some female trolls may be looking for a soul”—by trying to win the hand of a human man.


4. Contemporary depictions of trolls, like the Norwegian trolls in Frozen, have been prettied up for mass consumption.

Perhaps they reflect humans’ changing relationship with nature, from something that could kill you to something more benevolent. In the older traditions, says Hugus, “you can accept that things are scary, and this is a way of explaining it.”


5. There are tales of trolls who abduct human women to assist at birth, to ease and midwife the birth process.

Many such stories eerily resemble contemporary accounts of alien abduction. “The folktales are the science fiction of an earlier age,” explains Hugus. “We talk about parallel worlds, the hidden people living right alongside humans, and humans don’t know this.”