Long before the term was being used to describe ethically deficient netizens, the trolls were vaguely defined mythological creatures of Scandinavian folklore. Nowadays, trolls of all kinds are rife in fantasy, taking up space on the page, being pointlessly mean, and generally bringing down the rarefied tone which Rothfuss and Martin have spent so long building up in the public consciousness. But trolls rarely get the same development as their smaller cousins, the orcs, who nevertheless fill a similar narrative role. Why is that, and what can (or should) we do about it? Answers to both these, and other questions you have never asked before, below.
Orcs might labour under the weight of racist baggage and/or simplistic social tropes (delete as preferred), but trolls are generally presented as both more and less: more, in that they tend to be more immediately supernatural than orcs, and less in that they are shown to be more animalistic, more – for want of a better word – monstrous. Traits commonly associated with trolls include the following:
- Unusual size (usually larger than average)
- Unusual appearance (usually hideous)
- Unremarkable, or largely absent, intelligence
- Base cunning
- Fear of and/or vulnerability to fire, sunlight, or some other phenomenon.
- Great strength
- Great stamina
- Magical powers
- Ability to heal rapidly or even regenerate lost body parts
- Only rudimentary understanding of society
- Easily cowed by beings stronger than themselves
Like orcs, trolls have a narrower range of traits associated with them, and for similar reasons.
The original trolls were not a single type of monster, but a catch-all term for a wide range of beasties, ranging from near-human to fantastically other, and in the fairy-tales and stories in which they appear, were not always exactly defined. Unlike the Gallican ogre, with which Classic Troll has certain narrative similarities, trolls were not always necessarily antagonistic either. Nevertheless, their magical powers and tendency to turn to stone in sunlight set them apart from the humans in their stories, and establish the antecedents from which Tolkien and others later drew.
Classic Troll is rarely seen in books today, although some Scandinavian literature, like ‘The Moomins‘ is clearly derived from those tales (even though it seems to me that the Groke is not only more clearly a troll, but also possibly the source of all fear and misery in the known universe).
Ultimately, the broad range of different creatures which fall under the Classic Troll umbrella does not lend itself to modern fantasy stories: something near-human is likely to be referred to as an orc, or (if magical) an elf or goblin; something larger and more bestial is likely to be named a demon or ogre, although there are notable recent exceptions with a high profile, including Disney’s Frozen. Nevertheless, these tend to be in the sphere of family or children’s entertainment rather than high fantasy.
In essence, Classic Troll does not really exist in modern fantasy because it establishes no clear niche for itself, and can easily be rolled into nomenclature that does not carry the unfortunate nuances of troll which have arisen due to
Dungeon Troll is probably the most familiar troll archetype for most of us. Drawing upon the particular spin by (as always) Tolkien, trolls are hulking, dangerous, man-eating monsters which are generally used to increase the stakes once slaying orcs becomes sufficiently boring, because no matter how refined or enlightened we become as a society, we still apparently crave bloodsports. Trolls’ raw strength can rarely be overcome by the heroes, except by the designated strong-man/peerless warrior of the group, and require some quick thinking or (increasingly, due to how cinema has influenced us) nifty stunts. Bonus points if the troll can be encouraged to run into a wall in a blind rage and thus knock itself out.
Dungeon Troll is found in Tolkien’s books, and Dungeons & Dragons and derived works (including Dragonlance and Pathfinder), as well as wargames like Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Tolkien’s fire-fearing trolls came in several kinds, including those which turn to stone as in Scandinavian legend, as encountered in The Hobbit, but the notion of the regenerating troll, which can only be defeated with fire (or, later, some other arbitrary thing) can allegedly be traced to the 20th Century author Poul Anderson and his book Three Hearts and Three Lions. Other creatures can fulfil the narrative function as well, although in sci-fi, they tend not to have the same supernatural weaknesses. Examples include the wampa and rancor in Star Wars (Episode V and VI respectively) , but sci-fi as a rule does not have direct counterparts to trolls.
For Tolkien, a troll was simply a particular kind of orc, a creature of evil and malice. In game-worlds like Golarion and Abeir-Toril, the books often describe trolls’ appalling behaviour as a result of their never-ending hunger, a strangely scientific approach to the consequences of their regenerative powers. This, however, is rarely examined, due to the way in which trolls are always assumed to be in the wrong due to a combination of evil and stupidity. Nevertheless, an interesting approach would be to revisit this notion of hunger, one of the overriding drives and concerns of all living beings: can a monster-hunter or questing adventurer really presume to sit in judgement over a creature whose only desperate desire is to know what it is like to be comfortably full, who stole livestock out of a terrible, unholy hunger that only a starving human can begin to understand, and who only fought back against those who came to kill it, as though it were some kind of pest? And why would it then waste the meat left behind?
Grisly, to be sure, but much more interesting than ‘troll hit man with rock because troll bad’.
Where trolls do get rare treatment outside the archetypes given above, they tend not to be terribly interesting, from a world-building perspective. Warcraft‘s trolls, for example, are basically rubber-forehead aliens, in that they are just people with surprisingly anthropocentric drives despite an allegedly different biology (including the ability to heal rapidly). They also (at least, the jungle trolls do) have a culture that revolves around spirits called loa, as in Haitian Vodou, although unlike in real life, this appears to be their aboriginal religion, rather than a form of syncretism. This, coupled with their accents, lead me to believe that they are probably not universally viewed as sensitive to the cultures on which they draw. On the other hand, the trolls historically rejected slavery.
All this is a long-winded way of saying that the solitary high-profile re-imagining of trolls in the public consciousness is, at best, okay-ish. On the one hand, it is going in the right direction by giving the trolls a distinct culture, rather than leaving them in an otherwise poorly justified state of semi-barbarousness, but on the other hand, the far-flung troll society is surprisingly hegemonic, which would raise some awkward questions if cultural hegemony were not the norm across all the races in Warcraft.
Where Reformed Troll could have done better is (as always) an interrogation of their social values and spirituality. The trolls were aware of other cultures and interacted with them, and must have seen from early on how they were different from them. The backstory mentions that they are cannibals (although the Zandalari had to give it up in order to join the Horde), which raises the question: why were they cannibals? As jungle-dwellers, they were likely not short on food most of the time. Was it a spiritual practice? Due to something lacking in their diet? The result of occasional lack of edible foodstuffs?
No explanation is given because, as always, it is a game, and the writers just wanted something to make the trolls seem sinister, but the idea of a feared society emerging from its place on the edges of more “civilized” nations and wanting so much to join that they would give up something of their own culture to do so is, in itself, a fascinating premise for a story. There is, obviously, nothing especially great about the Horde, but what if the choice had been between the sacred funeral cannibalism of the trolls, by which the strength and wisdom of all their ancestors are passed down to them, or a new technology or magical art which could save them from, say, their ravenous hunger?
The troll as a sinister, magical being – rather than a regenerating brute – has its roots in the original stories, after all: stories which are deeply connected to foundational anthropological and social drives. Dungeon Troll has taken up enough room in our books and on our screens: it is time to revisit Classic Troll, and see what new stories lie just waiting to be told.