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Horror in the Medieval North: The Troll
By Ármann Jakobsson
The Palgrave Handbook to Horror Literature, eds. Kevin Corstorphine and Laura R. Kremmel (Palgrave, 2018)
Introduction: The troll is a good example of how inseparable figures of horror are from language. Consequently, this study will be much concerned with language. The troll appears in medieval sources, such as eddas and sagas from Iceland. After the Middle Ages, it has an afterlife in folklore and folktales and, finally, in modern popular culture. However, the meaning of the term changes throughout the ages. In Iceland, a troll became a specific race of mountain-dwelling ogres, whereas, in the rest of the Nordic countries, they shrunk in size. Thus, it is of utmost importance to distinguish between medieval and modern usage of the term.
In this study, I mostly focus on medieval trolls. I begin with a case study to illuminate the uncertainty of meaning, that is, how often a particular source will not define a troll precisely enough for a modern reader to envision the creature in question. Then I turn to the usage of the troll concept in medieval sources, demonstrating that the term is very broad. Thus, the medieval troll category will include creatures that others would refer to as witches, magicians, sorcerers, ghosts, zombies, and vampires, but also possessed animals, gigantic ethnic others, and fairly undefined monsters.
Top Image: The Sea Troll, by Theodor Kittelsen