The Term and the Figure ‘The Troll’


We’re all supposed to respect “community”, and – of course – respect itself. The negation of these warm and cosy things is often said to be ‘trolling’. Wikipedia is interesting on the origins of this; as is so often the case with etymologies, it’s not at all clear as to where it came from. There’s a fishing practice which involves dragging a lair along beneath the ship, and it’s documented that in 1972 US Navy pilots would go ‘trolling for MIGs’ ie try to decoy the fighter planes defending the Democratic Republic of Vietnam against the American invaders.

So it’s quite natural that the verb should lead to the noun ‘troll’ – a person who trolls. But the word ‘troll’ has another reference, which goes back a long way. Trolls were non-human creatures who lived in caves and mountains and were generally malevolent, see here


There’s a lot of argument, apparently, as to just what kind of creatures they are, and how many kinds of them there are. But there’s no dispute that they are bad news for humanity, as well as being grotesque in appearance.

There’s a long tradition which depicts trouble-makers as looking grotesque. At the very beginning of Western literature, in Book 2 of The Iliad, an agitator appears in a conference of all the Greek warriors on the beach outside Troy. Thersites is described as bandy-legged, pigeon-chested, with a hump back and a pointy head with wispy sprouts of hair. He’s given a good hammering by manly Odysseus and taught to respect his betters. Anti-suffragist cartoons at the beginning of the 20th C depicted feminists as scraggly, ugly, weird looking. That’s continued right up to the present. American conservatives used to (may still do) use the epithet ‘pointy-headed intellecutuals’. And, of course, anti-semitic iconography depicts The Jew as physically repulsive.

There’s a particular kind of ‘trouble-maker’ in a major work of 19th C art – the Nibelung dwarves in Wagner’s The Rhinegold.



These trouble-making dwarves steal some magic gold and plan to rule the world. Now I have a blank area when it comes to music in general, and an even blanker spot in regards to opera. But I’m persuaded (and I didn’t need much persuading) that the Nibelung are a coded version of the figure of The Jew. Now one of the major issues which the Conservative sensibility has with the figure of The Jew is that too much thinking, too much intellectualising is corrosive of the established order. For the traditionalist it’s not just the supposed Jewish facility in finance which is corrupting of natural ways, it’s all that questioning and stirring up.

To my eyes the Trolls are much like the Nibelungs. So that knee-jerk reaction to anyone who asks too many questions and ‘stirs things up’ comes from that same urge for cosy conformity that animates the anti-semite. There’s quite a lot of that about in the Web echo-chambers where the libigots have their lairs: Let’s all agree to agree, and even when we disagree to make sure there’s lots of ‘it’s just my opinion’ and the like weaslywords. I’ve even seen the phrase ‘shit-stirring’ used – which is an unfortunate phrase as it implies that the people who form the relevant forum, or group, or whatever are … well …. shit.

So folks who throw about the word ‘troll’ really should look at some of the company they’re keeping.



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