Grandmother Troll

The folk lore and history of  Iceland play major roles in Eleanor Arnason’s new story, “Grandmother Troll.” Read it in our [September/October issue, on sale now!].

My father’s parents came from Iceland. Since the population of Iceland is not great, and the West Icelanders in Canada and the U.S. are not numerous, this was pretty exotic back when I was a kid. Of course, I was interested in the country. In addition, my father spent World War 2 in Iceland, working for the U.S. government, and told stories about the experience. (The U.S. had a huge wartime base in Iceland and recruited everyone they could find who spoke Icelandic. My father had grown up speaking it.) I read books about the country as a kid and took Medieval Icelandic in grad school, since they didn’t offer modern Icelandic. The language is conservative, so the two versions are not that different, except for vocabulary. Modern life in Iceland has required a lot of new words. At some point, I began to write stories drawing from the medieval Icelandic sagas, which are famous, and Icelandic folklore, which is less well known. Five of these stories have been collected into a book titled Hidden Folk, which can be found on Amazon or from the publisher, Many Worlds Press. I have written an additional four stories, not yet collected. “Grandmother Troll” is one. 

I should be clear about two things. I am not an expert on Iceland, though I’ve read a lot over years and been to Iceland twice. I am sure Icelanders can catch me out in a lot of errors. Also, the Iceland I write about is my version of the country and culture. For example, I don’t like Icelandic elves. They are described as like human Icelanders, but richer and handsomer and in better health. Most Icelanders for most of their history were miserable peasants, living in sod huts, subject to poverty, sickness, bad weather and volcanic eruptions. Elves were like the few rich Icelanders, or like the Danish merchants and officials who exploited and/or ignored the people of their colony. (Iceland was a colony, first of Norway and then of Denmark, from the 13th century. It did not become completely free until after WWII.)

I like Icelandic trolls. In Icelandic folklore they are a mixed lot, usually hostile, but sometimes friendly. I see them as the island’s rock come alive: strong folk, but not especially fortunate, peasants barely getting by, hiding from humans in the highlands. There are two kinds of trolls: those who can go out in sunlight and those who will be turned to stone if sunlight touches them. I usually write about the latter, probably due to the influence of Tolkien and The Hobbit. Even the ones who can come out in sunlight are not often seen. 

There two stories about trolls I like. These are real stories out of Icelandic folklore. One is about Bishop Gudmund the Good Arason, who used to wander around Iceland with a troop of beggars. If he stopped at a prosperous farmer’s farm he would be welcomed, since he was a bishop; and the farmer would have to feed his troop of beggars. 

I guess you could say my story is about history and how we relate to the past, and about respecting the land, and taking good care of our animals, especially our sheep.   

Anyway, all kinds of bad things were happening around the island of Drangey in Skagafjord, and Gudmund was asked to bless the island. The island’s cliffs were sheer. The only way he could bless them was to be lowered on a rope.  Gudmund worked his way around the island, getting lowered at each new section. Finally, he was almost done. He was about to bless the last bit of cliff when a huge, gray hand came out of the stone and grabbed his rope. A deep voice said, “Even the wicked need a place to live, Gudmund.” 

This struck the bishop as reasonable, and he did not bless the last bit of cliff. The hand released his rope, and he was pulled up.

The Icelanders know what part of Drangey was not blessed. The first time I was in Iceland, I spent a couple of hours on an Icelandic fishing boat off Drangey. I remember the sheer cliffs and the seals in the water and the boat’s captain telling us that this section of cliff was still unlucky. Bad things still happened there.

So that is one story. The other I got out of a book on trolls. Some fishermen were fishing at night and getting loud. One of their party said, “Be quiet. You’ll disturb the trolls.”

A night or two later, that man was asleep. He dreamed that a troll came to him and thanked him for his consideration. “In return, I’ll tell you when and where to fish so you always have a good catch.”

The troll kept his word. After that, the two of them would go out fishing together on moonlit nights. If the troll was along, the man’s catch was always good. 

My trolls are usually helpful, rather than wicked. But there is no question that trolls can be dangerous, just as Iceland can be. Icelandic Search and Rescue is always rescuing idiot tourists who get their cars stuck in glacial rivers or who get lost in the highlands. Pay attention to the weather when you are there. Follow instructions from the natives about where to go and what to do. Do not walk on the lava near an ongoing volcanic eruption. The crust may look black and solid, but the lava may be still red and molten underneath. 

What else can I say about my story? The man who Grandmother Troll gives shelter to in the highlands is Grettir the Strong, the hero of the Grettis saga, an amazing character. He meets his end on the island of Drangey in an epic last stand against his enemies. 

I have made the farmer in my story a descendant of the great saga hero Egil Skallagrimsson. Egil’s grandfather Kveldulf did in fact send his spirit out as a wolf in the evening. Egil’s father Skallagrim was a smith, which is a somewhat magical line of work, and Egil himself was a viking, a poet and sometimes a magician. He laid a really impressive curse on the land spirits of Norway, so they could not rest until they had driven Norway’s king Eirik the Bloody Axe out of the country. Eirik ended in York in England. Unfortunately, Egil was on a ship that broke up on the coast near there. So Egil ended in the court of his worst enemy and had to buy his way out with a praise poem named “The Head Random,” which is the first example of a Norse poem using rhyme. 

Egil was a real person and a real poet. We have three of his long poems preserved in the Egils saga,  including “The Head Ransom.” His family has descendants alive today. I may or may not be one. 

Both Egil and Grettir are awful, violent men and also kind of likeable. Their sagas are my favorite sagas. This does not mean I approve of their behavior. 

The sheep getting caught in a blizzard in my story is based on an actual blizzard that hit northern Iceland a number of years ago. It was in the fall, before the sheep had been gathered in for the winter, and the sheep were still out in the fields, trapped under a huge snowfall. Iceland Search and Rescue had to go out on snowmobiles, find sheep and dig them out and bring them to safety. It was an epic effort, which was made more difficult by some tourists who got themselves in trouble, so Iceland S&R had to leave the work of saving sheep and go to rescue tourists. Tourists are important, of course. But sheep are also important, and the sheep had not done anything silly. 

I guess you could say my story is about history and how we relate to the past, and about respecting the land, and taking good care of our animals, especially our sheep.   

Eleanor Arnason sold her first story in 1973. Since then, she has published six novels and fifty works of shorter fiction. Her novel A Woman of the Iron People won the Tiptree and Mythopoeic Society Awards. Her novel Ring of Swords won a Minnesota Book Award. Her story “Dapple” (Asimov’s, September 1999) won the Spectrum Award, and other stories have been finalists for the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and Sidewise Awards. Eleanor’s most recent story in Asimov’s was “Tunnels” a Lydia Duluth adventure, in the May/June 2020 issue. Hidden Folk, a collection of short stories based on Icelandic folklore, came out in 2014.

One thought on “Grandmother Troll”

  1. I loved this article. I know next to nothing about Iceland and now I want to learn more. Thanks so much for the introduction to its folklore.


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