On trolls

>> Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Over at Hot Chicks Dig Smart Men, my friend Janiece has some questions about trolls, several of which began afflicting her blog after she had the gall to take the piss out of libertarians. (The really funny thing about this last bit being that she titled the post "Annoying Libertarians: A Primer", and then a bunch of the gits got annoyed by it. Well-played!)

Janiece says there are some things about trolls she doesn't get, and I figured I could jump in and be helpful and try to shed some light on why they act the way they do.

Like a lot of geeks, my first exposure to trolls was in The Hobbit, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien. Many folks are under the understandable misapprehension The Hobbit and its successor, The Lord Of The Rings, are fantasy novels--they do, indeed, relate a number of seemingly fantastical incidents and events and concern themselves with heroes, dragons, wraiths, wights, wizards, monsters, etc.--but such a misunderstanding overlooks several key points. First, that Professor Tolkien was not some mere hack pulp writer holed up in a dingy apartment pecking out bizarre fantasies, but rather was a sober and respectable Oxford linguistics professor who spent an enormous amount of time investigating ancient and lost languages; he certainly didn't have the time to spend making up a bunch of nonsense about little people and elves. Second, that Tolkien was explicit about the origins of his tale and made no pretense of authorship: The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings are portions of a larger text, The Red Book Of Westmarch, begun as a journal or diary by one Bilba Labingi, a kuduk (a likely diminutive of the Rohanese kûd-dûkan, literally "hole-dweller") of the Sûza, a region somewhere in northwestern Europe, probably in the near vicinity of what is now the British Isles or Normandy. Labingi supplemented this journal with extensive scholarly notes drawn on his own studies and references in the libraries at the lost haven of Imladris (commonly Anglicized as "Rivendell") before passing it on to his cousin, Maura Labingi, who extended the history of the kuduk role in a major continental war and added his own scholarly notes before handing the book to his servant, Ban Galbasi, whose heirs extended the volume (or, more likely, several volumes comprising the "book") with commentary on what we would now likely consider Southern Europe and the Mediterranean by Kalimac Brandagamba and his heirs.

The point of this digression is that we must surely give The Red Book the respect it deserves as a scholarly work, which is how it was ultimately meant to be taken by those who preserved copies through the millennia, laboriously hand-copying it for future generations. (Professor Tolkien notes that the original is long-lost--unsurprisingly--but many copies were made, one of which (or a fragment of which) must have made its way to the Professor in the course of his scholarly work). And this early, completely non-fictional, first-hand account of an encounter with trolls is an enlightening place to start with any questions we might have about these unpleasant and sinister creatures.

The trolls show up very early in what we conventionally call The Hobbit, the first major encounter the traveling party led by Thorin Oakenshield have with the wilds just outside the relatively civilized pastoral bounds of The Shire, in the second chapter of the book. They're a fearsome, brutish bunch: William, Bert and Tom (these are certainly not their actual names, but a transliteration of a translation), sitting around a fire and complaining that all they have to eat is roast mutton and not a spot of "manflesh" to sink their teeth into. Also, they're running low on booze. We won't go through the entirety of the encounter--I assume you can lay your hands on a copy of this best-seller--but will merely recap the salient features of trolls:

  • They are not very smart.
  • Related to the first point, they have limited linguistic comprehension: e.g. when Bilba begins to describe himself as a "burglar" and quickly corrects himself to describe himself as a "Hobbit", the trolls misunderstand him to mean he's a "burrahobbit."1
  • They have similar problems with basic counting and math: e.g. when Bilba fumbles again and claims to have both "lots" of nearby friends and "none at all", the trolls' reaction is mathematical confusion, i.e. rather than catching that Bilba has made a simple slip of the tongue, the trolls proceed to some debate and a violent fistfight concerning numerical paradoxes.
  • They are prone to violence at little or no provocation; to quote Labingi:
    Then there was a gorgeous row.... [T]hey were fighting like dogs, and calling one another all sorts of perfectly true and applicable names in very loud voices. Soon they were locked in one another's arms, and rolling nearly into the fire kicking and thumping, while Tom whacked at them both with a branch to bring them to their senses--and that of course only made them madder than ever.
  • They are so easily confused and so witless when it comes to social interaction, they are evidently incapable of telling the voice of an elderly man from that of any two of their best friends (to the extent such antisocial beasts are capable of friendship).
  • They are very greedy. (E.g. the trolls the Oakenshield expedition encountered possess a cave full of treasure with many items they have absolutely no use for such as armaments they're incapable of using properly and that are specifically dangerous to themselves--i.e. Elvish and Dwarvish swords forged to be baneful to creatures of darkness--but horde them anyway instead of properly disposing of them).
  • They are extremely intolerant of sunlight, in fact instantly turning to stone at exposure to the first rays of dawn.

The attentive reader has already noticed several items which explain the behaviors of those trolls who have managed to survive the changing ages of the World and somehow gotten ahold of computers and figured out how to plug them in and access the Internet. They are violent, asocial creatures who struggle with reading comprehension, are prone to name-calling, are avaricious and foolish, and fear daylight.

The English came to call a creature such as this a þyrs, a cognate of the Scandinavian þursar; one makes special note of the quote included at the first of those links: "Þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian ana innan lande," "The monster must live in the fen, alone in its land" (emphasis added). Here we see another early description of a troll (though quite a long time after Bilba Labingi's close encounter), exiled from contact with other living creatures (it must live in the fen, i.e. the bog) and it must live there by itself.

Here we come unexpectedly upon a tragedy. There can be no doubt that a troll should not be tolerated or fed--they prey upon humans, recall--but also little doubt that despite the creature's profound mental incapacity, it is sentient in its own way: these creatures have names and can refer to themselves and others in ways encompassing an awareness of self, of others and of temporal relationships, e.g. "Grrrrr--I [self] will eat you [other] as soon as I cook you [event happening in the future implying somewhat sophisticated sense of causality]!" Is it too much to then hypothesize that trolls are capable of being lonely, that as self-aware creatures they ache for communication and understanding even while they are rendered, tragically and ironically, incapable of sustaining or nourishing it by their tiny intellect, foul habits and carnivorous dispositions?

This should not be taken as a plea for tolerance of trolls or to imply that anyone should ever put up with them, much less indulge them. Rather, it is an answer to Janiece's questions: why do trolls act the way they do? The reason surely must be that they need to be heard even as surely as they are incapable of listening, they need to give something of themselves as surely as they greedily hoard, they need to be part of a community as surely as they would inevitably succumb to the instinct to prey on any herd they were ill-advisedly allowed amongst.

Naturally, these ruminations must be seen as speculative: there is no way anyone ought to actually spend enough time with trolls as to confirm any of these musings, as it would be hazardous to one's health and well-being. One would surely end up on the end of a spit or in a cooking pot; or, in a best-case scenario, one would find oneself so frustrated with and frightened by one's test subjects as to succumb to the temptation of claiming one heard a sheep just outside the cave entrance on a bright sunny afternoon, "Why don't you go take a look for yourself, just don't block the exit, please."

1We note in passing that this conversation presumably took place in Westron, the lingua franca of the era, and that Tolkien's translation, although thorough and able, misses some subtleties and flavor of the original exchange. The reader is advised to keep this point in mind throughout.

Geekish update 2012-04-04, 1900: based on some further digging, I find that the proper Westron for the name Professor Tolkien transliterated as "Frodo" is, actually, "Maura". I apologize for any distress this error may have caused before I corrected it in the above post.


Janiece Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 1:53:00 PM EDT  

And it all becomes clear. Thank you, my friend.

David Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 2:08:00 PM EDT  

Well this post just made my day. :)

Phiala Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 5:34:00 PM EDT  

Eric, I love you.

In a platonic intellectual way, of course, and without any threat to Kat. :)

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