Long before the first waves of human settlers began to make their homes in the peaceful mountain valleys and magnificent fjords of western Norway, it was inhabited by seven tribes of trolls.
These trolls were not mere beasts, but intelligent beings highly skilled in many arts and possessing an enviable fund of wisdom. Some of these tribes were extraordinarily advanced in their pursuit of truth, beauty, and virtue—but others were exceedingly wicked. The Norse sagas tell of their survival right through the Viking Age, but then they seem to disappear.
But bits and pieces of troll history can be gleaned from many Norse sagas. In addition, new discoveries and work on previously untranslated sagas have greatly enriched our knowledge of trolls. Owing at least partly to these new discoveries, there has been a remarkable increase of public interest in trolls during the last ten years.
Many more reports of trolls are now being seen in Norwegian newspapers, but these are usually attributed to too much alcohol. Having studied the matter for many years now, I am not so skeptical. Perhaps we are finally opening our eyes to what was there all along. But I will let the readers decide for themselves. Here is the story of Ketel Flatnose as seen through the eyes of several Norse skalds and the author.
Ketel Flatnose’s Saga
There was a troll named Ketel Flatnose. He had a cave by a great rock cliff near the Romsdalfjord in Norway. He was one of the happy trolls and not at all mean like many of the trolls who live in the darkness under the mountains.
There are many different kinds of trolls, and each has its own peculiar characteristics and customs. Perhaps someday I will write a book and tell about all the interesting things I have learned about trolls. But I am getting ahead of my story.
Ketel Flatnose was nearly seventy years old, which is still quite young for a troll. He was still a little too young to marry, so he busied himself with enlarging and furnishing his cave and caring for the animals and trees of the thick green forest below his new home. In the evening he recited the ancient poems his parents had taught him and tried to compose a few poems of his own. Sometimes he sang to himself and the animals. He missed his parents and brothers and sisters, but he visited them often and was grateful for the beautiful territory that had been granted to him by the Elders of his tribe, the Valoisa.
Like most of the happy trolls, Ketel could usually be found with a smile on his face. But he was not always smiling, for he had a great sympathetic heart that caused him on many occasions to burst into tears, whenever he believed some innocent animal or troll had suffered hurt or misfortune. On the other hand, Ketel could be as fierce as any troll if provoked by danger or evil. A troll, even a normally happy and kindly troll, can be an awesome sight when angered. Trolls are able to inflate themselves to two or three times their normal size. They do this sometimes to intimidate their enemies. Some rather naughty trolls do it just for the fun of scaring the daylight out of humans. But Ketel’s mother had taught him better manners. Ketel, like most trolls, was normally about four feet tall, but he could inflate himself to over ten feet tall for a few minutes. Then he would begin to deflate like a leaky balloon.
It is said by some that trolls can also make themselves very small, small enough to fit between the teeth of a small child, but this gives them a very cramped feeling and can be rather dangerous. Trolls, in fact, have a good many shapes, sizes, and appearances in their bag of tricks. A favorite mischief is to appear in almost human form, but however much they practice and experiment, they still have a tail. If you see a tail coming out of someone’s coat, you have met a troll. Trolls, with a good bit of practice, can also make themselves invisible. The more considerate, happy trolls do this to avoid frightening humans.
The happy trolls are happy because they are content. They are happy to be who and what they are. I have never read of a happy troll who gave a whit who had more gold, or was more popular, or wiser, or uglier. It would be a great stretch of the truth, at least from the human point of view, to say that any trolls are beautiful. The happy trolls are content to be what they are, so they like ugly, but they also love beauty. Ketel was just as happy to see someone else happy or praised as himself. Ketel saw beauty in almost everything and loved it, although he himself was not beautiful. But perhaps if you looked into his heart there was real beauty. Happy trolls, by the way, can look into people’s hearts.
The angry trolls who live beneath the mountains are never content. They are full of greed and jealousy, always wanting more than anyone else. Although their brains work just as well as happy trolls, they always seem to get things wrong. They cannot seem to think a single thought without distorting it with greed and envy. The angry trolls hate humans with an inhuman passion. That is because the Creator gave humans some gifts that they do not have. The angry trolls are not happy with their own gifts. They are seething with hatred because someone else has a single tiny gift that they cannot horde to themselves. The angry trolls don’t love beauty; they don’t even love ugly. They hate beauty and truth and especially the Creator. They loathe the happy trolls because they are not like them. They especially hated Ketel Flatnose because he did not hate them.
One summer afternoon, Ketel went to catch some fish and take them to his family at the Geirangerfjord. But as he was walking through the forest on his way to the little river that flowed into the Romsdalfjord, he heard two small voices speaking in a language he had never heard. Ketel had never seen many humans before, but these two little flaxen-haired human girls seemed to him to be the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen. He did not want to frighten them, so he made himself as invisible as possible and followed them. At last, they came upon a human farm, and there he saw a beautiful woman with long and exquisitely combed light chestnut hair sitting in the door of her longhouse and weeping.
Ketel did not know why she was weeping, although he was beginning to understand their language. Trolls, you see, have a special gift for languages, and after just listening awhile, can begin to understand almost any language. The beauty of the little girls and the sight of their beautiful mother weeping so touched him that he began to weep in sympathy. Unfortunately, not even the most practiced troll can weep and remain invisible.
Ketel struggled to stay invisible for a moment, but he knew it was useless. He expected the little girls to begin shrieking with horror at any moment and their mother to begin wailing even louder. Not wanting to frighten anyone, he felt rather embarrassed. So it was that when he emerged into full visibility, he had a rather sheepish grin on his face. The little girls did not scream. Instead, very softly and shyly at first, they began to giggle. Then they both shouted at once, “grimli, grimli,” words which he heard them say in the forest and now realized that “grimli” meant something like “little ugly.” They just looked at him with wide blue eyes that seemed to be filled with both awe and amusement.
Their mother ceased her weeping and, with blue eyes strikingly similar to her children’s, looked at him with a sad but now hopeful look and spoke.
“I am Aelska Ragnars-daughter and these are my daughters Valda and Truda. I was the wife of Bjarni Rolfsson, slain by Gort Blacktooth just six moons ago. And now my only son, Ivar, lies dying in this longhouse, and my eldest daughter, Margerda, has been taken in chains by this same, black-hearted thief and his fiendish warriors. They have even taken all our grain and food and our five goats. For three days we have lived only on the little grain that fell from their sacks. We know your works, Ketel Flatnose, so I sent my daughters to seek you.”
Now although it is easy for the happy trolls to understand other languages, the gruff voice of trolls makes their words difficult for humans to understand, even in the same language. So Ketel said just a few words and tended immediately to the young Ivar. In a moment he emerged from the longhouse and found a bluish-colored spruce near the edge of the woods. From it he carefully scraped some bark and asked Aelska for some water. The little girls brought water from a nearby stream, and Ketel made a small fire. He then shredded the bark into small pieces with his teeth, placed it in the water, and boiled the mixture for a few minutes. When it cooled. he tasted it, made a face, and added a little barley he had in small bag. Then he gave some to Ivar who had begun to shake with fever. But in a few moments Ivar was calmed and in just about an hour the fever was gone. Ketel gave him more of it about every hour and presently the boy, who had a nasty head wound, began to recover.
Aelska was so overjoyed when she realized that Ivar would live that she even let out a little laugh and joked that Ketel’s words were so gruff that he might be a Dane rather than a troll. The girls hugged and kissed their brother, and Ketel, a bit teary-eyed with his successful treatment of Ivar, began to sing a little song.
It was too gruff for Aelska Ragnars-daughter and her children to understand, but shortly thereafter a small red fox emerged from the woods and came directly to Ketel. He sat on his hind legs as if waiting for some instructions. Presently, Ketel addressed the fox by his name, which was Skrogger. After a few trollish gruffs that made Aelska wonder again whether Ketel had been associating with Danes, Skrogger sped like lightning into the forest and disappeared. Ketel had sent Skrogger to find Gort Blacktooth and his men. He had a plan in mind to rescue Margerda.
Ketel stayed that night in the barn with a little horse named Flicka, which means in the language spoken by Aelska, “little girl,” and a donkey named Barki. He befriended them both.