The Troll In Me And The Troll In You

One of the more humorous aspects of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is his expression that he had a bit of the troll in him.  Although the word troll has a greatly different semantic domain when one is dealing with a Norwegian playwright whose works occasionally (as in Peer Gynt) made use of folk stories about trolls and a twenty-first century person for whom trolls are unfriendly people that one meets online, there are a great deal of insights that we can gain from pondering the importance of trolls across space and time and understanding why it is that we often feel the need to include trolls as an aspect of categorization, and why it is also important for us to recognize that we all may have just a little (or more than a little) bit of troll inside of ourselves, not least because other people are often able to recognize these aspects of ourselves.

Let us begin with the importance of trolls to an understanding of Northern European folk superstition and myth.  Not only from writers like Ibsen, whose plays appealed to a high literary register and remain important in understanding the drama of the second half of the 19th century, but also from more popular writers like Tolkien, trolls become a very obvious aspect of the mental world of European peoples.  Trolls, as seen in the Hobbit for example, are not very bright humanoid beings who are strong and often very large but who can be easily outwitted and fooled.  One finds the same sort of semantic domain when one looks at Ibsen’s portrayal of trolls in his own drama.  The troll as a mindless and dangerous brute, but one whose mindlessness allows those who are more clever, is one that has endured in Western writing and it suggests a fundamental ambivalence with mere physical strength in the absence of mental strength.  To be sure, a being that was both immensely strong and also immensely clever would be far more dangerous of a threat for smaller human beings, and so giving strong beings a major lack when it came to intelligence is seen as evening the score.

What does this have to do with the way that we view trolls on the internet, the place where we are most likely to meet them now that bridge trolls are no longer spoken of with the same degree of frequency as in past centuries?  The similarities are pretty easy to recognize.  Trolls are viewed as denizens of the internet who respond to other people with mindless hostility, who are thought to be immune to rational communication.  In many ways, though, this is a copout.  We know ourselves to be human beings, and if we know ourselves to be less than fully rational, there are very few of us who will consider our reasoning processes to be entirely lacking, and few of us that will not take some pride in our own reasoning, however faulty it may be in a particular case.  We therefore ought to recognize that if our statements inflame other people to the point of being unreasonable to us (as happens from time to time for the best of us), then perhaps there are reasons for it.  Since we excuse ourselves for our own hostile responses to others, justifying it in some fashion, our lack of acceptance of the justifications of others suggests that either we need to be harder on ourselves when we show trollish tendencies, more empathetic to others when they show themselves to be occasionally brutish, or some combination of the two.  The lack of symmetry between our desires to justify ourselves and our use of troll as pejorative expression to condemn others requires some sort of response on our part.

We might also want to ponder for ourselves why indeed trolls are so common in our world [1].  For one, there is the real possibility that we are much less likely to recognize and react to the humanity of those we are dealing with online in the face of anonymity and the absence of personal interaction, though this has certainly not stopped bullies and thugs in generations past who found other reasons to justify their violence towards others.  For another, there is a human tendency that is especially active in our own times to attempt to delegitimize discussion that is hostile to us, regardless of what we think and believe and how we behave, and this process tends to remove principled disagreement and disapproval into the realm of unthinking fear or mindless hostility so that we are not forced to reflect upon the real origins of the disapproval and its implications for us.  After all, trolls were once a rare creature, only found in distant valleys or bridges far removed from mankind, but trolls for us are something that we encounter when we look in the mirror or wherever we happen to go online.  Whatever has multiplied the perception of trolls, we can assume that it represents something wrong inside of us to make the trollish tendency that more obvious or to make us think of other human beings whose reasoning is likely as sound or unsound as our own as mindless brutes because we simply cannot accept that people with reasoning capacity could come to such varied and opposite reasoning as we find in our contemporary world.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to The Troll In Me And The Troll In You

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I found the synonyms for “trollishness” in spell-check: doltishness, hellishness and foolishness. These definitions go hand-in-hand with your blog. I am completing my study of Proverbs this month and much is said about the fool. Rational thinking and words are lost on him and he causes strife wherever he goes. We must excise the troll from within us, for it goes against the natural grain to rise above this tendency. Perhaps, by taking charge of our own thinking, words and actions, we may do justly in our corner of the world.

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