‘As for Bilbo walking primly towards the red light, I don’t suppose even a weasel would ahve stirred a whisker at it. So, naturally, he got right up to the fire – for fire it was – without disturbing anyone. And this is what he saw. Three very large persons sitting round a very large fire of beech-logs.
‘They were toasting mutton on long spits of wood, and licking the gravy off their fingers. There was a fine toothsome smell. Also there was a barrel of good drink at hand, and they were drinking out of jugs. But they were trolls.’
The Hill Troll remains a plague and a nuisance to newcomers to our beloved LCG even to the present day. Have a look on any forum and you’ll find new players complaining about the first massive hurdle they face in the second of the original quests. But who is this troll? Where do they come from and why are they so bothersome?
The short answer to the origins of trolls we learn from Treebeard, who makes the assertion that they were made “in mockery” of the Ents: tall and large and strong, but altogether evil and hostile. While Ents are gentle and slow to rouse to anger, trolls are openly violent and delight in their cruelty. This is a fine internal starting point, as we know that orcs were mutilated, deformed mockeries of Elves dating far back into the time before time, the Ages before the Sun. So, by extension, trolls should follow along those same lines.
‘You do not know, perhaps, how strong we are. Maybe you have heard of Trolls? They are mighty strong. But Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves. We are stronger than Trolls.’
Within Tolkien’s cosmology, nothing can create except God. Evil, even powerful evil like Sauron, can only deface and corrupt and bend as Frodo tells us of Orcs in The Tower of Cirith-Ungol:
“No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.”
So, Treebeard’s account works, but I really like the idea of even characters in a book living on false history, so maybe, just maybe, what Treebeard says is old Ent-lore without any real historical backing.
Our first encounter with trolls in Middle-earth is, famously, in The Hobbit. Thorin and Company stumble upon some trouble and send Bilbo to investigate. The poor burglar comes across three terrible, but really quite intelligent, trolls. Since Tolkien later started to fit the tale of Bilbo’s adventure into the larger, more serious mythology of his world, a couple theories popped up to explain old Burt, Tom, and Bill: (1) this was a Hobbit’s account of things written for Hobbits, so surely it needed a way to make the trolls more palatable; (2) the three trolls we meet are the predecessors to the Olog-hai, that is the ‘high trolls’ bred for the War of the Ring who were far more intelligent than the average troll and can withstand sunlight. We learn in the beginning of Fellowship that such trolls are abroad in those dark days, so this seems at least somewhat plausible.
Whatever the case may be, Burt, Tom, and Bill serve as a case study of trolls. They eat villagers, live in an isolated little clan, and cause trouble wherever they go. Like the examples we see of ‘independent’ orc clans (the Moria orcs we meet in The Uruk-hai chapter, for instance), trolls can either live in thralldom to Sauron or off in the wild on their own. They prefer the hills and caves for, as Strider tells us in Flight to the Ford, ‘trolls do not build’.
All this begs the question of inspiration. It’s no secret that Tolkien drew upon Germanic and Norse and Anglo-Saxon myths when composing many of his tales and it is from Norse mythology that trolls come. But in the Old Norse trolls are mentioned a few different times and in a few different ways (thanks, Google!). In some contexts they are more akin to faeries, like Anglo-Saxon myths, or giants (jötunn) and in some they are strictly evil creatures (thurs). The more modern troll that we think of today was passed down from the mythology to Scandinavian folklore. In these, they often don’t look much different from humans or can change form, but are altogether evil and hostile, living alone in the mountains, fearing the sun, ready to pounce on unsuspecting victims and eat them. They also are famously hateful towards Christians and in one particular tale the Finntroll was fond of attacking and eating missionaries, which ties into the interesting stories of Scandinavian culture before and after Christianity. But that is another story altogether.
The big green things we know and love today, from The Hobbit to Dungeons & Dragons and beyond, are a melding of all of these characters. They are, effectively, cousins to giants. If the different properties of trolls are rooted in different beings, as told by the Eddas, then modern literature, perhaps starting with Tolkien, has taken all of them and processed them into the things we know today. Either way you slice it, they’re just plain nasty and we can be glad for every one we dispatch in our little game.