Trolls are next up in our survey of the fantasy kindreds found in Shadow of the King.
TROLLS (Homo neanderthalensis exter)
The neat thing about trolls is that nobody can agree on what they’re supposed to be like? Are they big and brutish? Short and cunning? Powerful shapeshifters? Crafty smiths? Animalistic savages? Rustic livestock herders? Even within Norse mythology, whence we get the word, they can be all of these things.
The word troll is something of a placeholder in the Scandinavian languages for nearly any sort of uncanny supernatural being. The term often overlaps with both “giant” and “ogre,” though those are defined differently in the world of Shadow of the King. For my purposes, if you can’t pin it down to any other category (elf, dwarf, etc.), it’s probably a troll.
I ran with this idea to conceive of trolls as the “wild card” kindred of Saynim. What sets them apart from everyone else is precisely their weirdness and diversity. They are found almost exclusively in northern Eurasian cultures. Wherever you find a wild humanoid with inexplicable physical features, you’re probably dealing with a troll. This would include such beings as the jeetani and stallu of Saami culture, the oni of Japan, and the abaasy of Siberia.
I imagine trolls as another derived subspecies of Neanderthals. They are therefore closely related to dwarves. Along with dwarves, they generally have a stocky build, a prominent nose, and a heavy brow ridge. Beyond that, however, all bets are off. They might be much taller than humans or much shorter. They might possess unusual features such as horns, fangs, arresting eyes, or an unusual skin pigmentation. Being physically bizarre is not considered a bad thing among trolls. On the contrary, it is a badge of pride and self-expression.
Trolls are not necessarily ugly. In fact, some are quite attractive in a feral sort of way, and some have even intermarried with high born elves. This is reflected in legends of intermarriage between Jötnar and Aesir in Norse mythology and between Fomori and the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland.
Some trolls can be stupid, but many more are eerily cunning. They are second only to elves in terms of raw magical power and have often been included in the highest ranks of Saynim society.
Trolls tend to be socially transgressive. Many derive a particular pleasure from shocking others with their outrageous behavior. In other words, they “troll” people, and there is a scene in Shadow of the King where one troll in particular does just that, getting them to lose their cool at precisely the wrong time. Trolls might work hard, but they always play harder. Nothing is subtle about them; they live life with all the dials cranked up to eleven.
Are trolls evil? Not necessarily, though they have little patience for social niceties. They get a bad reputation as violent, cannibalistic, or generally subversive. These assessments are only sometimes true.
AYLECK (H. n. exter x H. n. nanus)
An ayleck is a troll-dwarf hybrid. They don’t actually exist in mythology, at least not without a little fudging, but since I decided that trolls and dwarves would have a close genetic relationship, I figured they needed to be named.
The term “ayleck” is derived from Old English aglæca, meaning “fighter” or “fearsome opponent,” perhaps of an unearthly or supernatural nature. From (I think) the same etymology, Alick and Eelick are attested name for trolls in the folklore of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. The term is applied both to Grendel and his mother in Beowulf—as well as to Beowulf himself! With nothing else really to go on, I decided that Grendel could likely be a good example of an ayleck who leans more heavily toward his trollish heritage. Similarly, the karliki of Slavic myth, a type of dwarf that tends to have an unpleasant personality, might reflect aylecks who lean more toward the dwarven side.
Aylecks don’t have to be evil or violent, however. But since they are different, they are often misunderstood. (John Gardner’s novel Grendel portrays the title character as an antihero—monstrous yes, but not unsympathetic.) They are the products of two quite different worlds: the orderly, hardworking, productive world of dwarves and the wild, unpredictable, hard-living world of trolls. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they struggle to fit in, or that they tend to be meticulous hoarders—fiercely holding on to things (treasure, knowledge, contacts, etc.) that give them a sense of control over their own lives.