For most Internet users, it's impossible to avoid the word 'troll.' On Twitter, Facebook, forums, the comments sections of news articles and blogs; everywhere you look, someone is accusing someone else of 'trolling' - saying and doing troll-like things with nefarious intent. If someone is trolling, it follows that they must be a troll. But why?
I find it very interesting that, out of all the real and imaginary beasts available, it is trolls that have been selected as the embodiment of bad behaviour on the 'net. After all, trolls aren't tech-savvy, urban or contemporary. Their roots lie in Norse mythology and the untamed wilderness of the ocean, mountain and forest.
In this sixteenth century drawing, trolls are aligned with supernatural power over the environment:
[From Olaus Magnus' "Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus", book 3 (1555). Via]
The description explains what is occurring:
"To the left a gnome who is cutting stones in the underground. In the middle a supernatural creature is working in a stable. At the bottom right corner a wind troll with passengers are going by boat without using sails. At the top left corner a witch riding backwards on a dragon. At the top right a coach is driving without horse."
More recently, author and self confessed "troll expert" Lise Lunge-Larsen describes trolls in this manner:
"As tall as trees and as ancient and rugged as the Norwegian landscape from which they come, trolls are some of lore's most fascinating and varied creatures. Some live under bridges, others deep inside caves. They can carry their heads under their arms or hide their hearts inside wells. They can walk across oceans and fly over mountains. Trees and shrubs may grow from their heads, and their noses can be long enough to stir soup. There are troll hags, troll daughters, and elderly, shrunken trolls. Old or young, they are quarrelsome, ugly, and boastful, and they love to trick princesses and children. To defeat them, children must rely on the strengths of their humanity-persistence, kindness, pluck, and willingness to heed good advice."
Trolls have indeed proven popular in children's stories throughout history.
[Good evening, old man! the boy greeted. From Walter Stenström's The Boy and the Trolls (1915). Illustrated by John Bauer. Via]
[Look at them, troll mother said. Look at my sons! You won't find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon. From Walter Stenström's The Boy and the Trolls (1915). Illustrated by John Bauer. Via]
[Here is a piece of a troll herb which nobody else but me can find. From Alfred Smedberg's The Boy Who Could Not Be Scared, in the anthology Among Pixies and Trolls (1912). Illustrated by John Bauer. Via]
[So, how is your appetite, troll mother continued. From Walter Stenström's The Boy and the Trolls (1915). Illustrated by John Bauer. Via]
Trolls often merge with the surrounding landscape, staying still for so long that foliage begins to grow across them.
[Troll Becoming A Mountain. JNL. Via]
[Skogtroll (Forest Troll). Theodor Kittelsen (1906). Via]
[Troll. Michail Samez (2009). Via]
In her book The Troll With No Heart In His Body, Lunge-Larsen identifies the merging of body and environment as a critical element of troll mythology:
"Clearly, one aspect of children’s fascination with trolls is that they make the very landscape come alive. Not only are trolls of the landscape, they also return to and shape the landscape around them when they die.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of walking in the woods with my mother when I was about three. We ambled along the trail in the dark old-growth forest filled with filtered sunlight, when my mother suddenly grabbed my arm and whispered, 'Look! There’s a troll' I actually thought my last moment had come, until I saw where she pointed: to a dead troll that had turned into an overturned tree root. Together we examined the troll, found his nose, arms, and even his eye sockets.
It was a magical moment, and to this day I point out all the dead trolls in the landscape to my children and their friends: A huge rock pile is a troll that burst, a tree root lying on its side is an ancient troll, an oddly shaped rock may be part of a nose. One summer my eight- year-old son, swimming in Lake Superior, spotted an unusually round white rock. He dove for it and proudly emerged with a 'troll’s eyeball.'"
[Sjøtrollet (The Sea Troll). Theodor Kittelsen (1887). Via]
Of course, our ideas about trolls have changed as the years have passed. The twentieth century had its own incarnations, some more frightening than others...
[Troll Terror. Via]
And who could forget that pinnacle of film making genius, Troll 2?*
*Yes, technically these are goblins, but the film is called Troll 2 so I'm going with it.
The most popular contemporary example is the one I began with: the Internet troll. Urban Dictionary describes a 'troll' as:
"One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument."
The second most popular definition offers a more extended answer:
"One who purposely and deliberately (that purpose usually being self-amusement) starts an argument in a manner which attacks others on a forum without in any way listening to the arguments proposed by his or her peers. He will spark of [sic] such an argument via the use of ad hominem attacks (i.e. 'you're nothing but a fanboy' is a popular phrase) with no substance or relevence [sic] to back them up as well as straw man arguments, which he uses to simply avoid addressing the essence of the issue."
[Internet Troll: As trolls are as old as mankind, so internet trolls are as old as the internet. By JNL. Via]
Perhaps the term isn't so strange. Like all trolls, the Internet variety are a product of their environment. Protected by anonymity, Internet trolls are free to taunt and trouble, then fold back into the online landscape once their work is done - effectively disappearing beneath the virtual foliage, back into their caves. Manipulating the discursive environment for their own entertainment, these individuals resemble their namesakes in more than one respect.
[Man in troll mask at New York Comic Con 2011. Photograph by Rahul Arefin Prithu. Via]
Like the children in fairy stories, other Internet users can perhaps use their cunning to outwit the trolls and cross the metaphorical bridge. The problem is, of course, that there are not just one or two or three trolls squatting on the path, but potentially millions. They even have a theme song.
Current top rated comment: "All trolls rise for the national anthem of the Internet."
It does seem that trolls, in all their guises, are here to stay. Just try to keep your fingers out of their mouths...