Look at Life: Trolls

11th November 2016

The Troll from the Costa Del Sol

the recent release of the movie Trolls, apparently ‘the most smart, funny, irreverent animated comedy of the year’ has reminded me of many things I’d prefer to forget. Its tagline ‘Find your happy place’ couldn’t be more ironic.

“But I love them all, even the ugly ones.” This was my daughter, years ago, defending her failure to have a cuddly toy cull. With toys, as with everything, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And, as it happens, I’ve always hated trolls. You know, those hideous, hard plastic things with synthetic upswept hair the colour of highlighter pens. I hated their grimacing faces, their repulsive, outstretched hands and immovable limbs. And were they dolls or toys? You couldn’t dress them or really play with them, after all, so just what purpose did they serve apart from to scare me?

When I was about eight, we moved house and I had to change schools mid-term. In the new classroom, there was only one available place: right at the front, under the teacher’s watchful eye and next to a boy who couldn’t or wouldn’t look up when she introduced me. When she lifted the lid of the spare desk, inside were not his discarded sweet wrappers or spare schoolbooks, but a whole community of trolls, all standing upright, some alone, some in groups, and all – I swear – with their upturned faces leering malevolently at me.

The teacher laughed, he blushed and squirmed as everyone crowded round to take a look, and I was horrified. Horrified at the ugly sight, but also that I’d have to sit next to this strange boy for the rest of the year. He had to clear them out, of course, and I don’t think he ever forgave me. So you can understand why they were unlikely ever to darken my own desk or door.

But my daughter had other ideas. When her auntie brought her back an oversized (at least two feet tall) shocking pink-haired troll from the Costa del Sol, she was rather taken with it. For the reasons outlined above, or perhaps down to pure snobbery, I hated that troll.

Perhaps it was the name. The word ‘troll’ is from Old Norse and describes the ugly, stupid and often sinister creatures that frequented Scandinavian myths and legends. A troll could be a giant or a dwarf or a goblin, but it was invariably a mischievous or malevolent presence.

The original troll toy was, in fact, carved in wood by a bankrupt Danish baker named Thomas Dam because he couldn’t afford presents for his child. The idea came from the traditional Scandinavian folk tales of his own childhood. Soon there were millions of plastic copycats. The craze that swept the UK, that reached my lonely little schoolboy neighbour’s desk, came, needless to say, from America.

Trolls appear throughout not just myth but also modern literature in various guises, from The Hobbit to Peer Gynt and from Harry Potter to the socially evolved trolls of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Even the Moomins are a type of troll.

At least the soft toys proliferating in my daughter’s bedroom were cute and cuddly. The troll wasn’t. And it was far too big for the hammock that we’d had to sling across a corner of her room to stuff the soft toys into. The troll was impossible to hide or ignore, although after a while I did manage to relegate it to the top of the wardrobe.

The way my daughter tells it, I kept suggesting she might be scared of it, that she might want me to get rid of it. But she never woke up screaming for me to take it away, and stayed perfectly relaxed about the troll peering down at her.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and eventually I took action. Discreetly, I donated the troll to her school for their upcoming bring and buy sale. An unforgiveable parental transgression – and a very bad move. Of course, we went to the sale – and, of course, she saw a child walking away with the wretched thing.

Confounded and rooted to the spot, she pointed and shouted out “That’s my troll!” I had been caught troll-handed. I could hardly pretend it wasn’t hers.

Words change over time, and ‘troll’, as both verb and noun, is a case in point. It’s etymologically connected, via an interesting route from its furtive origins to its modern meaning of malicious online hounding. The poor wardrobe troll seems benign in comparison to 21st century internet trolls, who can make lives a misery.

Oddly, though I tried to put the troll dolls themselves out of my mind, I never forgot the name of that shy and solitary boy. But I won’t mention it here in case he trolls me online…

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