Monday, April 30, 2012

TOTW: Ogres and Trolls

It occurred to me the other day that the wild things in Maurice Sendak's most famous picture book are actually a version of trolls or ogres. This makes sense when you recall how Sendak himself described the inspiration for the wild things:
Then, very gradually, these other people began to appear on my drawing paper, and I knew right away that they were my relatives. They were my uncles and aunts. It wasn't that they were monstrous people; it was simply that I didn't care for them when I was a child because they were rude, and because they ruined every Sunday, and because they ate all our food. They pinched us and poked us and said those tedious, boring things that grown-ups say, and my sister and my brother and I sat there in total dismay and rage. The only fun we had was later, giggling over their grotesque faces—the huge noses, the spiraling hair pouring out of the wrong places. So I know who those "wild things" are. They are my Jewish relatives.

Really, picture an older aunt looming over a small child, bellowing, "He's so YUMMY! I could just EAT HIM UP!" Not such a stretch to Sendak's wild things, or to the people-eating ogres and trolls of legend. Although in today's world, I'm pretty sure ogres and trolls represent school bullies. A few hundred years ago they were probably the village bullies. Think about the quintessential troll in the story "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." He gives the littlest goat a hard time, and the answer is basically, "Oh yeah? Well, mess with me and my big brother is gonna beat you up!"

These days, the world's most well-known ogre is Shrek— the movie version. (The picture book by William Steig is not much like the movie.) Dreamworks' Shrek is a great character in his own right, but there's a lot more to ogres than the green guy, especially in folklore and fantasy. As for trolls, let's move past those rubber dolls with the crazy, brightly colored hair and dive into literature.

But first, what's the difference between an ogre and a troll? The ogre is French and the troll is Norwegian. At least, ogres are first spoken of in French literature in the late 12th century and later in Italy as well, while trolls are solidly Scandinavian. (See cave troll illustration by John Bauer, left.) An ogre is generally oversize, ugly, and brutish. Sometimes he is also a giant. Trolls seem a little less harmful to people, though some have been described as man-eaters. Trolls are said to be nocturnal, turning to stone if caught abroad when the sun comes up. Both ogres and trolls are thought of as being dense, which means that a small, clever human can trick them despite their immense physical strength.

 As for trolls in literature, let's name a few more from the European fairy tale tradition. In Perrault's "Little Tom Thumb," Tom tricks an ogre into cutting off his seven daughters' heads instead of the heads of Tom and his six brothers, who have been Hansel-and-Greteled. Puss in Boots famously kills an ogre, also by tricking him. And Jack climbs up the beanstalk, where he tricks and robs another man-eating, ogreish giant. In the Scandinavian tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," a girl must rescue her lost love by tricking a troll princess (see Mercer Mayer illustration, right). And don't forget the classic D'Aulaires Book of Trolls, which combines stories about trolls with troll miscellany and marvelous illustrations.

Ogres and trolls pop up in modern MG/YA fiction every so often, as well. Keely Parrack says, " I love Neil Gaiman's short story 'Troll Bridge.'" It's a haunting story about a troll and the man who goes looking for him. Lisa Gail Greens tells us, "I'm rather fond of the troll in Holly Black's Valiant. It's an awesome twist on the typical fairy tale in that he's the love interest and the human female protagonist has to save him." Ellen Booraem adds,
Wasn't there an endearing ogre in The Secret of Platform 13? I have only vague memories of that. Seems like a case where writing against type is the road to humor and empathy. On a more traditional level, I've always been fond of the troll incident in The Hobbit, and the related one in The Fellowship of the Ring. Not being that well versed in troll lore, I always wondered whether Tolkien made up the bit about trolls turning to stone at daylight. As I recall, this was Bilbo's first chance to show his mettle, and he came through with flying colors. . . Also, there are the Hall of the Mountain King trolls in Peer Gynt. Loved Grieg's music for that episode when I was a kid (still do, come to think of it). The dance of the troll princess and Peer's escape were very evocative.

Ellen is right about the ogre in The Secret of Platform 13, who is very sweet and has been turned invisible so he won't scare people—all except his single eyeball (See eyeball floating at upper left on book jacket, left). Eva Ibbotson made a point of creating ogres whose personalities aren't as bad as their exteriors. In her final MG fantasy, The Ogre of Oglefort, the worst flaw of the supposedly terrible titular character is that he's a hypochondriac.

Some of the most memorable ogres in contemporary fantasy are the ones in Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted. The author gives us ogres who are far more intelligent and dangerous than the ones in traditional tales. They even have magically powerful voices they use to lure their human prey to be consumed.

I would say the best books out there for age 10 and up featuring trolls are by Katherine Langrish, an expert in folklore and medieval studies who also has an excellent blog. Her trilogy—Troll Fell, Troll Mill, and Troll Blood—begins when Peter Ulfsson is orphaned and sent to live with his horrible uncles, Baldur and Grim, who would be more than a match for James' aunts Spiker and Sponge in Dahl's well-known book. Turns out Peter's uncles are planning to sell human children to the trolls who live under the mountain in exchange for gold. Three troll books worth looking for!

If you're a writer, maybe you haven't considered putting ogres or trolls in your next book, but think about it. After all, we're almost done with the angel phase, so what's next? These characters can be great monsters and bullies, but they can also play the part of Beast to a Beauty—and who knows what else? (Artwork by Theodor Kittelsen, right.)

If you think of any other ogres and trolls in folklore and fantasy, please mention them in the comments!

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