Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Trolls

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.

Why Do Dwarves Have Scottish Accents?

Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura ponders why we associate certain (English) accents with fantasy creatures such as dwarves, elves, and trolls:

As radio and film adaptations of Tolkien’s works were released in later decades, you can see the slow evolution of the dwarven accent from the low British of 1977’s cartoon version of The Hobbit, to the more stylized accents of the pair of dwarves in 1985’s Legend, to the Welsh-by-way-of-Scotland grumblings of John Rhys Davies’ Gimli from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, right into the aggressive rolled R’s of Hearthstone’s dwarven Innkeeper.

“What you get is a sense of Celticness,” says Dominic Watt, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Speech Science at the University of York. Watt explains that many of the virtues associated with the stereotypical fantasy dwarf are also associated with the Scottish accent. “Scottish accents tend to be evaluated pretty positively,” he says. “Shrewdness, honesty, straight-forward speaking. Those are the sorts of ideas that the accent tends to evoke.” Watt also says that there are similar cultural stereotypes surrounding the drinking habits of dwarves and Scots.

He goes on to discuss the “culturally sophisticated” high-born accent of Tolkienesque elves, West Country hobbits, and Cockney orcs and trolls—which came about almost by accident:

Maybe the fantasy accent that can be most directly tied to Tolkien’s text is the working-class Cockney accent so often given to orcs and other sentient brutes in modern fantasy. Here we can look directly at the depiction of the trio of trolls in The Hobbit, which are written in a strangely modern dialect—a technique Tolkien rarely used, and later regretted. “In particular, he regretted making their language so recognizably modern. They wouldn’t say words like ‘blimey,’ for instance,” says Olsen.

In the later Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien’s orcs would speak in harsh, but basically correct common parlance, but in the larger view of the fantasy genre, the damage was done.

When you read a novel featuring elves, dwarves, or other fantastic races, what sort of accent do you hear in your head?


The Faery Folklorist has posted a wonderful introduction to the trows of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. In case you’re not quite up to speed on your trow-lore, the article begins,

According to Saxby and Edmondston’s ‘Home of a Naturalist’ (1888), “This interesting race of supernatural beings is closely allied to the Scandinavian Trolls, but has some very distinctive characteristics of its own. The Trow is not such a mischief-making sprite as the Troll, is more human-like in some respects, and his nature seems cast in a morbid, melancholy mould.”

From there, the article discusses what trows look like, where they live, and the sorts of things they do. There is even a brief but delightful list of trow names culled from Orkney and Shetland folklore.

A Field Guide to Mythological Humanoids

In order to avoid having loads and loads of races in the Into the Wonder series, I’ve devised the following system to evaluate and categorize the entities found in various world mythologies. Mind you, this system won’t work in every fictional universe, so caveat lector!

Contrasted with a run-of-the-mill, plain vanilla human…

  • Does this humanoid display vast magical powers?
    It’s probably a fae (sídhe, elf, jinni, nunnehi, etc.)
    Is it unusually good-looking?
    Definitely a fae!
  • Is this humanoid secretive and crafty?
    It’s probably a dwarf (dvergr, dactyl, etc.).
    Does it live underground?
    Definitely a dwarf!
  • Is this humanoid unusually short?
    It’s probably one of the little people (brownie, kobold, yunwi tsunsdi, etc.).
    Does it try to play tricks on you?
    Could be a little person if the tricks aren’t too mean.
    Does it try to clean your house or do your chores?
    Definitely a little person!
  • Is this humanoid unusually tall?
    It’s probably a giant (slant-eye, stonecoat, ispolini, etc.).
    No other distinctive features like powerful magic or a taste for human flesh?
    Definitely a giant!
  • Does this humanoid want to eat you?
    It’s probably an ogre (Laestrygonian, zimwi, water cannibal, etc.).
    But it’s no bigger than an ordinary human!
    Doesn’t matter, it’s probably an ogre!
  • Does this humanoid want to scare you?
    It’s probably a bogeyman (boggart, hey-hey man, nalusa falaya, etc.).
    There’s no such thing as a bogeyman.
    Tell that to him!
  • Is this humanoid just plain weird?
    It’s probably a troll (jaettertroll, fomor, stallos, etc).
    But I thought trolls were…
    You thought wrong. Trolls are just plain weird.

Ronald Hutton’s Typology of Faeries

In the video I mentioned in this post, Prof. Hutton provided a concise classification system for the faeries of northern Europe. It is but one part of a fascinating and expertly presented lecture, and I’m summarizing it here because it fits nicely (though not perfectly) with the way I developed the Fair Folk one meets in Children of Pride.  Hutton speaks of three basic categories of faeries in the British Isles:

1. Faeries proper, which Hutton describes as “the neighbors from hell.” These are the frightening and often malicious faeries one encounters in the oldest strands of faerie lore: the daoine sídhe and their cohorts. They live underground in a society that mirrors that of human beings, with courts, royalty (usually queens), banqueting, dancing, and the like.

2. Household helpers, including all manner of brownies, hobs, fenodyrees, and the like. These creatures are more mischievous than malicious, and they can sometimes be persuaded to help with the domestic and agricultural chores. But be careful, because they are easily offended and may just leave if one does something of which they don’t approve.

3. Faerie tricksters such as Robin Goodfellow. These are practical jokers, generally harmless or amusing rather than hostile. They are a rather late invention according to Hutton, largely under the influence of Shakespeare’s Puck. He is most assuredly not a pooka, which would better be understood as a dreaded “night being.” He further compares Robin Goodfellow to Native American trickster archetypes like Coyote as a trickster and buffoon, but also sometimes a powerful cosmic force. (Hutton does not use the specific terminology of “faery trickster,” but I think this is a fair description.)

He also notes a fourth category:

4. Nature spirits such as the pans and nymphs of Greek mythology. Properly speaking, Hutton says there are relatively few of these in the folklore of the British Isles. He further insists that these creatures are not, properly speaking, faeries at all since they fit into the natural realm in a way that traditional Anglo-Celtic faeries do not. Unlike faeries proper, beings of this type seem to be nearly universal in human cultures. Although Hutton insists such creatures are not faeries, he does say that the trolls or faeries of Iceland (and the related trows of the Orkney and Shetland Islands) are something of a hybrid between this category and the first. They are “land wights” who exercise guardianship over the land, but they are also said to live in underground communities and are often less than hospitable to human beings.

If you’re interested in the faery lore of the British Isles, you really owe it to yourself to listen to Prof. Hutton’s lecture.

The Darkling Diet?

I’ll admit, this article about goblins, trolls, and vitamin D deficiency has got me thinking. I really like it when fantasy fiction interacts with modern scientific knowledge, like when Harry Dresden comments about the law of conservation of energy and how it can effect the spell he is trying to cast. I even wrote a scene into Children of Pride that discusses the implications of the square-cube law to size-shifting faeries. I’m also kind of a fan of Food Network, so what follows might have been predicted.

In short, I’m wondering what sunlight-avoiding humanoids might eat on a regular basis.

Now, “sunlight-avoiding humanoids” (let’s call them “heliophobes”) is a pretty big, broad category. Many cultures have legends about creatures that live underground, only come out at night, or are in some way harmed by exposure to direct sunlight. For my purposes, I’ll eliminate vampires from consideration, as we all know what they’re having for dinner!

Let me, then, consider one small slice of the heliophobe population: the dwarves and trolls of Norse mythology. Both of these classes of beings are averse to sunlight. Various legends claim that both of them are turned to stone by the sun’s rays. Whether this is permanent or temporary—or whether this affects all members of these classes or only an unlucky few—are interesting questions, but not entirely relevant.

By narrowing my focus, maybe I can make some educated guesses about what the well-fed Scandinavian heliophobe is having for dinner. I expect it will be (1) some variation of a traditional Viking or later Scandinavian cuisine that is (2) altered where possible to provide increased consumption of foods rich in vitamin D.

So, what might a health-conscious Scandinavian denizen of the dark be eating? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Fish, and lots of it. Freshwater salmon would be readily accessible through night-time fishing expeditions in mountain streams and lakes, and it is a vitamin D goldmine with over twice the recommended daily dose in a 100g (~3.5-ounce) serving—assuming dwarves and trolls have the same nutritional needs as humans. Typically, raw fish contains more vitamin D than cooked, and fatty cuts more than lean cuts. I would imagine that salmon appears on the average troll’s menu nearly as often as chicken appears on the menu for North Americans.

Other freshwater fish would also be available, but most of the other oily fishes that are such a great source of vitamin D are ocean-going species like herring, mackerel, and tuna. I’m not sure trolls or dwarves are the deep-sea fishing types, but who knows? And of course, there may be underground lakes and streams in which light-averse creatures might fish. Gollum seemed to do all right in that regard.

Furthermore, our heliophobes are not likely to let any protein go to waste. Whatever is not consumed immediately would likely be preserved via drying, smoking, or pickling in salt water. Dried “stockfish” (the ancestor of lutefisk) is rock-hard, but can be pounded to break up the fibers and then served with butter. Pickled herring might be a delicacy if these heliophobes have access to the sea.

UPDATE: Wild-caught salmon, sardines, and herring are also an excellent source of DHA, the fatty acid that is a crucial component of the retina’s photoreceptors. They thus contribute to improved night vision.

2. Other proteins. It isn’t difficult to imagine trolls as nocturnal hunters, and some stories even describe them keeping livestock the way humans do. A health-conscious heliophobe will likely consider wild boar an especially valuable quarry. A 100g (3.5) ounce serving of pork ribs contains about 16% of the daily recommended value of vitamin D, although other cuts vary considerably. There is hardly any vitamin D in ham, for example. If pork isn’t their thing, beef liver is about half as rich in vitamin D as pork ribs. Venison of all types (red deer, elk, etc.) would also be a likely protein, though not a significant vitamin D source.

Trolls and dwarves might prepare sausages made with pork, beef liver, or other proteins mixed with herbs and spices. If they have access to grains (see below), they might bake their meat into meat pies or even serve it on an open-faced sandwich. The most common preparation for meat among the Vikings, however, was simply to boil it in a pot.

If folklore is to be believed, at least some of these creatures supplement their protein needs with human captives and/or each other.

3. Dairy products. If heliophobes either raise their own cattle or raid the cattle of their human neighbors, the milk may be more precious to them than the meat. A quarter-liter (~1 cup) of grass-fed cow’s milk contains nearly 40% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin D. I haven’t been able to track down the vitamin D content of reindeer milk, but it is definitely worth considering for inhabitants of northern Scandinavia!

Milk might be consumed raw, but would more likely be processed in various ways, creating other dairy foods that would last longer. Scandinavian heliophobes would certainly use butter as their primary cooking fat. Curds and cheese would likely be prominent in their diet. They might drink buttermilk or whey (which can also be used as a preservative to pickle meats). They might even let the whey ferment until it becomes blaand, a beverage similar to wine in alcohol content. Finally, they might enjoy a bit of skyr, similar to strained yoghurt, as a treat. 

4. Mushrooms and such. This one should really go without saying, as it is probably the food most famous for growing without sunlight. Some species, such as the white bottom and the shiitake, are excellent sources of vitamin D. Scandinavian heliophobes might also gather other cave-dwelling organisms like cave-dwelling snails, salamanders, and insects.

5. Cereals. Like the Inuit and other human populations from the far north, cereals are not likely to form a significant part of a heliophobe’s diet. Unless we assume dwarves and trolls maintain above-ground farms, such items will have to be acquired through trade with others. This would also include products made from cereals such as ale made from barley.

6. Fruits and vegetables. Once again, we probably have to assume trade with others to account for many fruits and vegetables in a dwarfish or trollish diet. But there is no reason these beings couldn’t forage for wild plants at night. Wild apples and berries of many sorts could be found in abundance and dried for storage. Wild leeks, onions, and radishes might be prized as seasonings for otherwise bland foods. Wild cabbage, carrots, or turnips would likely be common fare.

UPDATE: Fennel and bilberries both contribute to enhanced night vision.

7. Other ingredients. Trade with non-heliophobic populations would likely be necessary for items beyond those mentioned above. Eggs, another good source of vitamin D, would be high on this list (unless we assume trolls and dwarves keep their own livestock). Unless these heliophobes have access to the sea, oysters would also be a desirable commodity.

UPDATE: Not only are they high in vitamin D, oysters and other shellfish are high in zinc, which works in concert with vitamin A to enhance night vision. (Dark chocolate is also high in zinc, though obviously not part of a traditional Norse diet.)

Dwarves and trolls would also likely trade for herbs and spices with which to season their food: garlic, dill, coriander, poppyseed, horseradish, etc., and even more exotic (from a Viking point of view) ingredients such as ginger, cinnamon, and bay leaves.

I can imagine a number of dietary scenarios for the heliophobes of Scandinavian folklore based on such factors as (1) the severity of their sunlight-aversion, (2) their access to seafaring technology, (3) the nature of their relations with non-heliophobes. One could definitely conceive of these creatures as malnourished, at best barely surviving in a food-poor environment. With the right set of circumstances, however, they might eat very well indeed in their underground domains.