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Archive for July, 2014

IMG_2833This is sort of a belated review, but John Lindow’s book Trolls: An Unnatural History is out now, and EVERYONE SHOULD BUY IT!!! OK OK, I’ll try to quit the salesperson schtick. This book is  a solid overview of the topic from a leading scholar in the field of Norse mythology and Scandinavian Folklore,  but is also super accessible (well, as much so as a book can be while still remaining academic in nature). John has always been very at home with both the super-erudite discourse of academic journals (OK, that’s a given for a professor in the field…) as well as with articulating the state of the field in a readable and understandable way for those not in the field–note, for example, his Norse Mythology Handbook. Take this and the two Eddas and you’re well on your way to being a super-duper Norse mythologist.

The book is a slim one, at 154 pp, so it is not like this is a comprehensive book of everything about trolls–but it is an excellent overview, and is the only text I can think of that follows the term/concept “troll” all the way from its earliest attestations through it dissemination and transformation in international culture. Chapter one covers the earliest Norse attestations, chapter two the slightly later Medieval attestations (well, this is a slightly problematic distinction, as the Viking age texts were themselves written down in the Middle Ages, but it still works), chapter three covers the trolls of folklore, chapter four the transformation of the troll in the early printings of popular collections of folklore (and the illustrations are great in this chapter for showing the progression towards the more sensational, big-nosed, distinct-species of troll that we are more familiar with now), chapter five covers “trolls in literature,” inclusive of one of my favorite movies, while chapter six gets into trolls in children’s lit and marketing–and then there is the epilogue, which gets into the slang use of the word “troll” in contemporary society, from patent-trolling to the trolls who haunt the internet.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer's trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow's book is also a Bauer illustration.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer’s trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow’s book is also a Bauer illustration.

Legend Trolls vs Fairy Tale Trolls

The first two chapters were mostly a review of trollology I’d learned (from John, of course) early in grad school, but I really appreciated the overview of the later reception of the idea of the troll the latter chapters, in particular in terms of the history of the visualization of the troll (seeing how I am slowly venturing into illustration myself, and have a few troll pics, or trollish-pics, which I’ve put below). I also appreciated the observation (which I believe I’d heard before, but had forgotten) that trolls, in the more general sense of supernatural beings, are more ambiguously colored in the legend tradition (i. e., tales that are ostensibly true and less about narrative entertainment), where, for example, it is open to debate whether these Others are subject to the same salvation that the Christian, human, insiders claim, while in the fairy tale tradition (more explicitly ludic, fictional, and escapist, and often told by the rural proletariat) trolls are more explicitly Bad, playing the role of Villain, and, according to Bengt Holbek’s interpretation (which John does not get into in this book, though he does have a very thorough review of in a 1989 or 1990 issue of Scandinavian Studies), the negative symbolic embodiment of authority figures like landowners, employers, or parents (in-law).

A trollish portrayal of Thor's mother Earth.

A trollish portrayal of Thor’s mother Earth.

Trolls, Fantasy, and Good and Evil

This got me thinking about the priority of the escapist function in Fairy Tales, especially since I’d just been reading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories–while the rural proletariat may be more aware than most of the potential for moral ambiguity and abuse among those who are supposed to be “in the right” (as of course those in charge would think), or so my left-leaning sympathies had me thinking, the fact that it was primarily the poorest of the poor who tell fairy stories certainly highlights the importance of escape in their situation (a point Tolkien makes about all of us–it is the jailers who argue against escape–but let’s keep in mind the fact that some are more jailed than others), and we shouldn’t be surprised to find that one aspect of escapism is the isolation of Good and Evil, at least in certain places within a story. As horrible as it is when someone gets so bad that they are Just Bad, it is also a bit of a relief, isn’t it? To just say “THEY ARE BAD” and “THEY ARE GOOD.” But maybe a more nuanced take is possible as well–let’s keep in mind a key aspect of Tolkien’s celebration of the human ability to create coherent things which do not actually exist–green suns and the like. If I remember correctly, one of his points is that this linguistic ability to see green grass as both green and grass is at the root of the sort of work we do when we create fantasy worlds which are simultaneously coherent and yet impossible. Fantasy draws its power from the way in which it dances with the real world–if iron is ennobled by the forging of the sword Gram (as the Big T says), then our real world experiences of Good and Evil are legitimated, enhanced, sharpened, and affirmed by our fictional manipulations of these things (our reification of them, our treatment of them AS things) in a fantasy world. Green is greener by our ability to separate it from the grass that we perceive it on, and similar things could be said about Good and Evil. (gooder ? eviler ?  Hm, maybe I’ll work on this idea…) Of course, that is not to deny the great evil that has been done by the various fantasies of… well, of evil, that have been transferred into the real world and used to justify everything from rape to genocide–there needs to be a sufficient about of reflexivity if our fantasy is not going to just drive a two-dimensional ideology of us versus them.

Trolls trolls trolls

One last note–while John does not pursue a very developed thesis in this regard, he certainly does touch on the ambiguity of the world “Troll” itself (troll as magical, troll as extraordinary (if still maybe human), troll as generic supernatural creature, troll as giant, troll as a specific sort of monster, etc…). I’ve been meaning to write on this for a while, but just don’t have time at the moment–but well, now you can read his book! You can also read this article by Ármann Jakobsson on the topic (starts p 39, I think), which also reviews the academic literature a bit–but be warned, the article is written for those who are already “in” the academic conversation about trolls, so it won’t be quite the same sort of experience. I have to run now, but may revise/expand this review a bit… we’ll see.

Meanwhile, here are some more troll pics! (FYI–these are just for fun pics. Like, let’s pretend we are making up new creatures for a video-game type fun. Not authentic at all. You’ve been warned.)

Troll Sketch 1 14_edited-1

Lava Troll_edited-1

Ice Troll Sketch_edited-1

 

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Hey folks, I’ve recently had some great interviews and other resources for those interested in digital folklore come across my Facebook page, so I thought I’d share them here. Interview with Trevor Blank here (second part here), a free electronic copy of his anthology on Digital Folklore here, an interview with Robert Glenn Howard here, free online journal New Directions in Folklore here, and an interview with Dan Perkel about the DeviantArt community here–the latter was fun to run across as I have been a member of DeviantArt for a while now, and have found it pretty fascinating to see the interactions between amateurs and professionals of all stripes and philosophies as they negotiate what art is and what the relationship is between artist, work, and audience.

I realize “digital” and “folklore” may seem like very contradictory topics to those who associate the latter with legends and fairytales (and the Grimm brothers, nursery rhymes, traditional dances, etc), but as is pointed out in several of these links, while the study of folklore certainly did fetishize the “folk” as illiterate peasants naively bearing some innate national authenticity (see the linked book for a very thorough and learned discussion of all this), the phenomenon of “low-culture,” unofficial transmission of cultural knowledge, texts, images, etc, clearly encompasses traditionally understood “folklore” as well as it does UFO-abduction stories (which really very nicely replace supernatural abduction stories), “internet-memes,” as well as all the misinformation that gets passed around via email or facebook (and then discredited on Snopes). Robert Glenn Howard puts it nicely in his interview:

…a lot of people imagine “folklore” as “old stuff.” But that just isn’t the case. When the word was invented, it meant the stuff people shared back then—so we think of old stories like Cinderella as being folklore.  And at that time there was this idea that true folklore was disappearing because of modernization—but now we know that folklore changes, but it doesn’t ever disappear because its really just any stuff (the “lore”) that people (the “folk”) share.  A better definition might be that folklore is the informally shared knowledge that we perceive as connecting us to each other.

I like how Robert emphasizes the generality of the term “folk” (i.e., ALL of us), in contrast with the somewhat less democratic way the term has often been used and understood since the establishment of folkloristics as a field. When we continue to define “folklore” as the exotic bits of the European peasantry of the past, we recapitulate the understanding of the folk as “Other” from our own educated selves, as communal bearers rather than as creative producers (i.e., full subjects like ourselves). This is of course not to downplay the fact that the tools and norms with which people create, receive, and transmit these things vary dramatically from community to community and from discourse to discourse, but it is a very important (and productive) move to understand ourselves as “folk” and not just reserve the term for some researchable Other. The human know-er is always a part of the world which is studied–there is no such thing as an objective, uninvested, disembodied perspective on the world, at the same time that our western approach to science and knowledge has assumed such a position (OK, this is a less problematic posture to assume in certain fields…). Objectivity is something to strive for, true, but that begins with the condition that we are already embedded in the world, already a part of it, and when we act in it, even in terms of taking an “academic” posture towards something or someone, we change that whole that we are acting within. Objectivity is, in other words, a reflexive engagement with our own subjectivity, and if we think of it any other way, then objectivity becomes just another ideological fetish to make ourselves feel superior and right. When we turn our folkloristic gaze onto ourselves and our own engagement with “vernacular culture,” we gain a richer understanding of ourselves and our relationship to those we study, and we exercise a more nuanced and empathic ability to engage with those Other than ourselves (in other words, folkloristics is for everybody! 😀 ).

With regard to the topic of digital folklore itself, I realize people might say, “Hey wait, just where are the boundaries here? How can you separate out one sort of cultural product from another?” Looking at this ocean of media that we swim in, it does seem that there is a lot of blurriness (increasingly so) between the things shared and the way they are shared in “informal discourse” and more formal or official discourse (for example, new programs on TV share viral videos of the day now, and newspapers are often caught reporting the sorts of urban legends you find on Snopes). This isn’t actually a new problem, however–back in the heyday of collecting “traditional” folklore, collectors sometimes found that their informants had learned their stories from published collections of folktales. Well, shoot, that ruins all our nice, neat categories of authentic versus non-authentic, don’t it? Certainly labeling something as a “folk” product versus a “mainstream” or “formal” product is an act of power and, like all linguistic acts, involves a degree of arbitrariness, and so is one of the many things we need to engage in reflexively–but hey, welcome to the human epistemological and linguistic condition. And really, a term doesn’t lose its pertinence just because its referent is slippery and unfixed. I mean, what, are we going to throw all of language out?

And of course, if I’m going to post about digital folklore, then I ought to at least get one meme up on here (not made by me!). Make your own here!

Norse meme by the great Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology blog.

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