In the Alters’ World (and the series of books found here), creatures of legend reveal themselves to the world. Born through genetic abnormalities, defects and mutations, the Alters have lived for centuries as outcasts of human society, hiding their true nature from the world while colorful stories have been written by many to describe what they’ve seen. How are these creatures different from what was described in the stories? What relationship do they have with humanity? Every entry of the Alterpedia will delve into a new creature from around the world. This week we cover:
Spoken of in the tales of old, the Jotunn were a race of creatures who tormented man and god alike and eventually resulted in the end of the world. However, as time went on, the idea of the Jotunn divided into two very different beings. The first, the giants, continued to have the impressive, impossible size while still looking otherwise human, but the other, the Troll, took on all of the primitive and supernatural elements of the creatures of lore.
Trolls – ugly, hulking creatures with a deep connection to nature – have long been spoken of in the Scandinavian regions as a result. Said to be hostile to humans, especially Christians, they represent not only the natural world but the old ways that have long ago been abandoned in favor of modern religions. According to lore, they’ve existed throughout the lands, battling the gods and tormenting man, living under bridges, deep in caves, and in the thick forests. only to be rare today due to their inability to stand in the daylight sun.
But how much of this is confusion with the Jotun of old? How much of it is just embellishment? And do these creatures truly turn to stone?
Hulking creatures, the Trolls have long presented an intimidating image to the people of Scandinavia. Traditionally hairy, deformed, and wild in appearance, they had much the same markings as any number of wild men of the woods. Though, unlike similar creatures such as the Dwarves, the Trolls rarely had beards in the conventional sense. Instead, while not always hairy, they would have pronounced wild hair-growth all over. However, this didn’t necessarily have to manifest as hair. Said to have been somewhat earthen, often having trees or stones growing on them.
Along with this, their giant size could make them appear like walking hills or even mountains. Their proportions were “inhuman” at best and this extended especially to their faces. Notably, the Troll’s ears and nose were remarkably large and generally stood out in almost all depictions of them. Besides these features, the inhuman traits could extend to any number of deformities. Trolls were often known for more than one head, or arms so long their knuckles could drag along the ground. Overall, while appearing vaguely human, these creatures were easily identified regardless of their size.
Generally there were two distinct kinds of Trolls in the depictions, those who were fully attached to the elements and those who came closer to human civilization. Generally, those who were closer to the elements had little need for clothing or material possessions. However, those who were more civilized would fashion crude versions of what humans had had. Being more in tune with nature, their clothing looked much the same. Unlike the Aesir, Vanir, or the Elves, the Trolls were creatures often much more primitive and generally less refined than even their contemporary humans. They would wear crudely stitched together clothing made of furs and beads, similar to the clothing of the Vikings but far less sophisticated. This also extended to their homes, possessions, and crafts – all of which appeared nearly human but not quite.
Essentially, they were the twisted fun house mirror version of a human born from the Fjords. And, because of this natural connection to the world around them, it was long believed that they could return from whence they came if they were ever touched by sunlight. Their petrified corpses dotting the landscape as stone faces or stacks of rocks still holding a vaguely human shape.
Possessing an aggressive regeneration and growth, Trolls are afflicted with a unique form of aggressive acromegaly which causes these deformities. This also causes them to occasionally become giant, though not as large as some races could be, and some interbreeding between Trolls and Jotun has occurred in the past. Regardless of the limit to their size, Troll growth rates are constant even before birth. As a result of this, Troll twins are usually conjoined in extreme fashion, with some examples being so fully blended that the twins will appear to be a single two-headed Troll.
This abnormal growth, combined with an aggressive regenerative ability and immune system, also gives them their earthen appearance as they grow thick callouses and scar tissue. Calcium deposits in these tissues make them harder than conventional humans, looking like small stone deposits. And, while not as thick as the skin of a Golem, this makes Trolls incredibly durable overall. However, this is a double edged sword, as a sun allergy that runs through the race will cause their skin to rapidly calcify in response to their exposure. In small doses, this could result in the loss of function of some body parts, but in prolonged exposure it is not unheard of for a Troll to be seized and killed by this hardening.
Aside from that, the rest is based mostly in ancient encounters long before either race had come very far. Though originally relying on furs like other enlarged races, as the Jotun and other giants began to adopt textiles, the Trolls did as well. In fact, despite the stories, Trolls were often far better dressed than contemporary humans due to a more sophisticated understanding of fabrics required for making something that would fit. The remaining use of fur was for aesthetic or insulation reasons and even these were carefully tailored.
Essentially, though deformed by human standards, Trolls are still fairly sophisticated.
Granted with extreme size and strength, the Trolls were best known for their brute force like the Jotun of old. Powerful beyond measure, the Trolls were often found fighting the gods themselves with their immense strength. Common feats of strength besides fighting gods included being able to kill men with their bare hands or hurl massive boulders at buildings from afar. After doing so, they would then disappear, likely returning to their homeland, which for a time was another world all together.
Though rarely presented as intelligent beings, Trolls were thought to have some degree of magic, especially in terms of getting around. Tormenting mortals here in the world of man, it was thought for some time that Trolls lived in a far off land and, for a time, even another world. Using their primeval magics they could travel to these other places, and while not many stories of their magic exists, the fact remained that the world “troll” originally applied specifically to those Jotun who had some form of magical talent. Regardless, the most obvious form would be to disappear to another world, avoiding both the follow of humans and the sunlight of their world.
And, though rare, it was entirely possible for humans to follow Trolls to their homes – generally accessed through deep caves. However, this was though tto be a fairly bad idea, as the Troll’s great senses would allow them to smell out of the blood of a Christian. Try as someone might, any attempt to hide from them in their domain would be futile if they believed in the wrong faith. And because of this, few humans to have gone to the home of the Trolls have ever returned.
In truth, however, there is no Troll magic to be heard of. Though they’re incredibly strong like all other giant-type Alters, the process is purely biological. In fact, while it is true that they have thrown stones at human settlements in the past, these stones were generally much smaller than stated in the stories (as it was tradition for Vikings to exaggerate and brag). This does not mean, however, that they were “small” stones either, as the record for the heaviest stone thrown by a Troll at a village was a quarter of a ton and traveled almost 50 feet – destroying the wall of a small church before the Trolls retreated again.
The stories of Troll territory are also greatly exaggerated. Though territorial for much of history, their actual territory was established in subterranean cave networks much like those of Dwarves and Gnomes. These places were predominantly dark, intentionally so in many circumstances, and generally lacked enough light to be navigated by sight. In fact, the Troll sense of hearing and smell are considerably enhanced by their larger nose and ears, allowing them to navigate these dark spaces easier than they would by just sight. And, due to this, they can actually smell most animals from a distance with great accuracy.
The stories of being able to detect Christians with this ability is a result of superstition along with a history of conflict between the two. Christians, generally from further south in Europe early in the conversion of the area, were easily identified to the Trolls due to their fashion and behaviors. This, combined with their difference in grooming, made it easy to pick these people out from a distance using their additional senses. As time went on and pressures in Europe caused bathing to fall out of fashion for a time, Trolls were soon able to detect people with nothing but smell. When Christians soon determined that this had to do with their blood, the Trolls (not wishing to have Christians enter their territory) did little to correct their mistake.
But their hostility towards Christian and territorial nature were legendary. Given proximity to these people, they would go out of their way to destroy churches, torment the people, and even eat them if given the chance. In fact, humans were said to be one of the tastier snacks among the Trolls, that and “anything that comes nearby”. Whether something entering their cave, crossing their bridge, or even getting lost in their words – a Troll was going to eat it. It just so happened they enjoyed Christians most of all due to their malevolent nature.
There were ways to protect against them, however, and find a way to carve out territory for humans. As churches were erected, the sound of church bells were found to be able to drive them away. Ringing at regular intervals, these allowed the human villages to make sure that Trolls stayed far away. Though unsure why exactly this is, many assumed it was a result of divine might – particularly since Trolls were long defined as enemies of the gods.
Knowing this, Trolls were eager to smash as many human creations as possible and attempt to drive these people out. Should the church not be completed, it could never ring its bells, and thus it was a good plan to destroy them on sight. Even completed churches, should the bell not be ringing, were a good target to be destroyed.
Unfortunately for the Trolls, as Christianity spread, too many of these churches were erected to be all destroyed. Eventually, they were driven further and further from human civilization, some forced into the open where they were turned to stone by the sun.
Truthfully, it was never a matter of being evil or against gods. The tendency for Christians to spread their influence began to infringe on Troll territory quickly. Having been believers in pagan religions for much of their history, Trolls saw this as a threat to their way of life. Combined with the church bells, which created frequencies that caused the Trolls pain, Trolls were eager to destroy churches in their attempt to maintain control. This behavior eventually faded as time passed, the lessening of Troll attacks more due to their acceptance than a sign of Christianity driving them out – not for lack of trying on the part of Christians.
Troll hunting, while not spoken of in serious fashion, became quite common in the middle ages as Christianity saw Trolls as equally undesirable. The two sides were in what could have been considered a silent war, neither side making major gains despite Christianity continuing to spread. Troll territory, due to their need for extreme shelter, was never large to begin with. Their population has always been limited to caves and deep forests, away from where humans normally created their settlements anyway. So, while Christianity filled in the gaps, Troll efforts did prevent any actual loss of their personal territory.
This equilibrium was beneficial for humans in particular. Though no longer practiced, they did at one point eat people. This was acceptable for three key reasons at the time. The first was that humans were considered lesser beings by Trolls for much of history – little more than cattle. The second, given their immense size and caloric requirements, meant that Trolls have always been incredibly hungry. And the third is that the conflict with Christians often drove Trolls to further devalue Christian life.
However, as time has gone on, this has passed. The coming of the black plague resulted in many Trolls abandoning the practice from fear of disease (though Trolls had always been immune). Thanks to this, Trolls soon found ways to supplement their food supply over time. Modern agriculture, ranching, and other practices have allowed Trolls to fill their needs without ever needing to regress to these old ways. As a result, while there are a few outliers which may try…
Generally, it has become easier not to.