The Ancient Origins of Tolkien’s Trolls

As our heroes make their way to the East Road after stumbling upon the Stone-trolls, let’s take a look at the first time Tolkien used trolls in his stories.

Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 12 (p208, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
The scene from The Hobbit might have been the first time Tolkien ever used trolls in print, but it wasn’t his first foray into this strange species.

This takes us back to the Book of Lost Tales, the earliest writings that would eventually evolve into the Silmarillion. He began writing these tales in 1916, though several poems and ideas came from a few years before. Trolls play absolutely no part at all in the work, and it’s only in a series of, as Christopher Tolkien referred to them, “scribbled plot-outlines, endlessly varying, written on separate slips of paper or in pages of the little notebook ‘C’.”

Trolls play almost not part in this, as well. The story swings all over the place, but mainly concerns itself with Tol Eressea, where the Elves live. They appear in an outline describing, well… let’s just let it speak for itself:

The Battle of Ros: the Island-elves and the Lost Evles against Nautar, Gongs, Orcs, and a few evil Men. Defeat of the Elves. The fading Elves retire to Tol Eressea and hide in the woods.

Men come to Tol Eressea and also Orcs, Dwarves, Gongs, Trolls, etc. After the Battle of Ros the Elves faded with sorrow. They cannot live in the air breathed by a number of Men equal to their own or greater; and ever as Men wax more powerful and numerous so the fairies fade and grow small and tenuous, filmy and transparent, but Men larger and more dense and gross. At last Men, or almost all, can no longer see the fairies.

Okay, so there’s clearly a whole hell of a lot going on here. But quickly, Tolkien disliked the idea of elves/fairies being those small Tinkerbell sort of things, and wanted to explain how they came to be that way. This was the earliest fading of the elves.

Anyway, getting back to trolls… Yeah, this is really all he says about them. They’re mentioned in passing, and from all I can tell, not mentioned again by him until he wrote the Troll chapter in The Hobbit. But our search can’t really end there! Oh no.

During much of the Book of Lost Tales writing, Tolkien was seriously trying to tie in his work to specific places in England and Europe. Tol Eressea, where the Elves lived, was England. Even certain personalities matched up with historical figures.

Historically speaking, Rome invaded the island in 55BC, ruling until 380ishAD. Then, in 449AD, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded. They were led by Germanic brothers Hengest and Horsa. In Tolkien’s early mythology, Hengest and Horsa’s father was Eriol the Mariner. The Battle of Ros was their invasion, and the Trolls (along with the Orcs, Gongs, etc.) came right after.

Tolkien wrote these notes in 1925ish, but that wasn’t the only mention of Trolls. Sometime around then, he wrote a poem called “Pero & Podex,” which wasn’t published until 1936. It would later go on to be included in the Lord of the Rings, though after a few rewrites: “A troll sat alone on his seat of stone….”

And speaking of stone, while Tolkien’s account of Trolls turning to stone seems unique, he wasn’t the first to use it. In the 1200s, it appeared in the Icelandic Poetic Edda, about Germanic and Norse legends. Tolkien would definitely have been familiar with them. And though they weren’t specifically trolls in the old Icelandic stories, it seems as if trolls, dwarves, giants, etc could be swapped almost at random from tale to tale. Many tales used dwarves. Tolkien decided upon trolls.

In Grettis saga, another Icelandic epic from a century later, a She-troll was turned to stone when the sun rose – “and she still stand there on the cliff, turned into stone.”

It was also around this time, in the Summer(ish) of 1926, when Tolkien jotted upon a piece of paper: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” It would be another four years until he would set to writing the story in earnest, and then he would return to the Trolls.

When writing the Lord of the Rings, from almost the start, Tolkien had the idea that the hobbits would see the place where Bilbo met the Trolls. In an outline written during the Barrow-wight scene, Tolkien attempted to pace out the rest of the story (with Gandalf being the only one with fire enough to destroy the ring). “Pass rapidly over rest of journey to Rivendell. Any riders on the Road? Make them foolishly turn aside to visit Troll Stones. This delays them.”

The story would expand, taking on new geography and depth, but the Trolls would remain until the end.

A Few Notes

  • This post is not simply to take up space until we get to your boyfriend, Glorfindel.
  • Gongs are “evil beings obscurely related to Orcs. It’s not really known was Nautar were (was?). They had been related to the Dwarves in an earlier manuscript, but in this one, who the hell knows.
  • Part of the reworking of the Eriol story had Eriol renamed Ælfwine, or “Elf-friend.”
  • All glories to John Rateliff, author of The History of the Hobbit. It’s ridiculously wonderful. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide by Scull & Hammond was also wildly useful (though my used copy sort of smells like barf and/or microwave popcorn).
Camera: Polaroid EE100BSL | Film: Fuji FP-100C

Camera: Polaroid EE100BSL | Film: Fuji FP-100C

About the Photo
Just like yesterday, this is the Fremont Troll in Seattle. You can see that even though he’s under a bridge, sunlight can still get him. I assume this is how he turned to stone.

  • Day 81
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 401
  • 58 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,378 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Book I, Chapter 12. Back on the East Road, just past the old stone trolls. (map)


9 thoughts on “The Ancient Origins of Tolkien’s Trolls

  1. I would so love to see that original paper with “in a hole in the ground…”
    Seriously that is one of the best first lines in history. I’m a fan of the one in charlotte’s web. “Where is papa going with that axe?”
    But nothing beats “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…”

    • So would everybody! The piece of paper (actually the back of a student’s paper) was lost long ago. Tolkien couldn’t even remember when he wrote it, though it was probably in the Summer of 1930.

      The earliest manuscript is a six page bundle that was written not long after.

      You sort of need Rateliff’s History of the Hobbit.

      • I do. I act all had a minor panic attack at the bookstore today because there were six books I desperately need. I ended up getting none. I need a troll horde to afford my books. Miserable no good robbing trolls.

        • Well, he is working on an edited version which should be cheaper. Though it doesn’t help you now. And buying the full version used will still probably be cheaper than the edited version when new.

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