“I want to go with him,” my four year-old said sadly. “It’s my job to make sure he is safe.”
We had just said a bedtime prayer for his little brother who was starting a brief stay in a daycare the next day while my wife explored a part-time contract. We’ve been very lucky. After the birth of each of my children, my wife has made tremendous sacrifices to keep both kids at home and under our own care much longer than the average working family. Thanks to all the stars aligning with work flexibility, time-shifting our jobs, assistance from family, well-timed job changes, sheer dumb luck, preschool and camp schedules, we have, for the most part, remained the sole caregivers of both our children. Our intent has always been to make preschool their first introduction to being apart from us. This time however, we had no choice, and our youngest would be spending a few brief hours in “play school” a couple of days a week.
It wasn’t our first choice. Experience has confirmed for us that children typically fare better emotionally in individual or family care settings than in group care when they are infants, feeling more secure in familiar surroundings and able to eat and nap on their preferred schedule, not the program’s. This was certainly true for our first son who benefitted greatly from being able to spend the four hours a day my wife worked at home in the care of a part-time nanny. But even that solution left us burnt after two of our three caregivers left us hanging without notice. We had neither the time nor the trust to relive the opening scenes of Mary Poppins yet again, so we managed to talk ourselves into the less-preferred scenario. I was actually rather proud that it was my first son who took the most convincing.
“What if he gets scared, and doesn’t know where we are?” he asked.
“It’s our job to keep you both safe,” I said. “We will never take you somewhere that is bad for you, and we will always come get you ourselves. Mommy and Daddy will always come back for you both.”
Realizing this was as much about him heading into kindergarten soon as for his little brother I added: “Did one of us always come pick you up from preschool?”
“That’s because we want you to be with us and not with anyone else. Maybe you can tell him about that so that he will feel better too”
Our older son rarely shows separation anxiety. A few minutes in a play group or a birthday party and he doesn’t even know I am saying goodbye. He navigates new groups of kids with relative ease, and we hoped for as much with his younger brother who, though a social butterfly at 16 months, was still an unknown quantity.
As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about trolls.
Not the Internet variety, the real ones.
My favorite myths have always been the Norse variety, largely because of the trolls. Sure, Greek myths dominate Western literature and have cooler monsters. Their stories are better known and often more memorable. The Celts give us fairies and battles and tales of misty longing, but the names are unpronounceable to those of us raised with Saxon sensibilities. Native American and African stories are ripe with tricksters and animal wisdom. But when it comes to sheer Northern otherness, that sense of being vastly lost where none can be found, beyond warmth, beyond human caring, it doesn’t get any stranger and more compelling than the great trolls of Norse and Scandinavian myth. Creatures like these can only be born in imaginations surrounded by ice and unquenchable winters. Where other cultures have mythologies, the Norse have trolls: bigger than any particular tales about them, as hostile and monolithic as the mountains themselves.
Everyone probably knows something about them. They are essentially the “frost giants” or jötunn, living in vast frozen wastes, inside mountains or other isolated Northern places. Larger, uglier and frequently stupider than humans, they live wild, sleep rough or under bridges and eat what they capture. Goats are especially favored. They may have one head, six or any number in between. They come with the cold. In most stories, they have a disturbing ability to scent human (specifically Christian) blood. Resembling people, though very much not, they eat humans and can often be bested through trickery once lulled into a drunken or gluttonous stupor, especially by their captive human wives. When lured into the light of day, they are reduced to stone. Trolls are the very essence of something disturbingly not-us: bigger than winter, as unconcerned as a boulder with human affairs or beliefs, hungry as a mountain pass and twice as remote. They are a force of nature given human shape, and yet something more, which is what makes them so compelling in tales. Should you find yourself in the company of trolls, you are beyond the reach of human geography. Only guile, divine intervention or a little help from magic will see you safely home again.
One peculiar aspect of these tales is the sibling rescue. In troll tales, the central character is typically an oldest daughter or a youngest son setting out to rescue their lost siblings, and finding a husband or a fortune along the way. When all is said and done, after the North Wind or an enchanted reindeer has carried them as far as they can go, once all the tricks have played out and magical items have been used up, it is simply the determination born of the sibling bond that sees the hero through to the happy ending. As a storytelling parent, I find this interesting for two reasons:
1) Love is more than romance – We have grown so accustomed to romantic love as the one driving concern of Western fairy tales, it is really refreshing to find stories beating with another heart entirely, one that is far more approachable to a vast majority of children. Looking for the missing brother or sister is a far more immediate concern for the pre-adolescent than looking for their one true love. What if, instead of generations of little girls and boys raised tremulously pondering “love’s first kiss” from birth, our stories instead idealized the child who “brought their brother or sister home?”
2) Blood runs thicker than grief – The stories we do typically tell about brothers or sisters seemingly spring from the presumption of rivalry. Somewhere between Cain’s “Am I my brother’s keeper” and Cinderella’s jealous stepsisters, our culture’s pervasive myth of the sibling as bully/pest was born. As they grow, my sons won’t need any help finding ways to annoy each other. As a father, I welcome stories that offer a balancing force to bring them together.
Strangely, Scandinavian myth is a treasure trove of tales where a central, redeeming love is that of a sibling rather than a lover. In these stories, the warmth of fraternal responsibility is celebrated as a social ideal, and held up in sharp contrast to the inhuman society of trolls as the symbol of its (North) polar opposite.
One of the best I have read is the amazing (and sadly out of print) tale, “A Ride on the Red Mare’s Back,” an original tale convincingly styled after traditional Norse motifs, written by the science fiction great Ursula Le Guin. In it, a girl sets out to rescue a brother, taken by trolls during his first hunting trip, armed with nothing more than a warm coat and an enchanted wooden toy horse carved by her father. After following the trolls to their “high house” in the mountain, the girl sneaks through the caverns into a troll nursery, while her enchanted toy horse creates a distraction outside:
The room was huge, like a cave, and full of smoke from the torches. Around and across it children raced – troll-children, little ones and bigger ones, screaming and yelling, chasing and hitting, tripping and grabbing, throwing things, yanking things, breaking things. Under a sputtering torch, several large troll-children were twisting the arms of a smaller one to make it scream. On a pile of smashed toys and furniture one troll-child stood, bellowing, “I won! I’m king! I won!” Near the doorway two troll-babies, filthy dirty, sat shivering in a heap of wet rags, weeping in high voices. In the middle of the room a thin troll-child had made a fire of trash and was cooking something over it on a stick. And far across the room four or five troll-children were fighting over a toy of some kind, or perhaps something to eat. They were screaming and struggling and hitting one another. She looked at them and saw that one of them was not a troll-child, but her brother.
This passage in particular stands out, both for its imagery and its use of the troll. Beyond being mere winter giants, Le Guin’s trolls capture another essential aspect of the symbolism: the troll is inhuman. They stand for the opposite of human connection. Trolls use insecurity and scarcity to cultivate the selfishness and brutality needed to thrive in their wintry world. Because strength is domination, need is to be met only with neglect. In the rules of story, then, trolls are not meant to be evil. They are meant to be us. Or rather, the “us” we become when conditions are wrong. They are what every parent fears our children will become without us (or, on bad days perhaps, because of us). That is why the brother or sister is their natural opposite in these tales: not a parent, not a lover, they come to the rescue simply because they are connected. Troll tales are literally the stories that move us from bullying to brotherhood. For the modern reader, like me, who question which is truly our natural state, they offer the light of day in response. When the sun finally rises, all in the story are seen for what they are: trolls are reduced to standing stones, brothers and sisters are restored to family. Which do you choose?
Our own choice became clear soon enough. Our daycare center was playful, fun and supportive, the women who staffed it, hard-working, caring and attentive. Nothing like the troll cave above, it was still wrong for our child. Within two weeks, our happy, friendly 15-month old who liked to wave at passersby became a frightened, insecure mess who panicked into full meltdown whenever one of us left the room, even if the other was holding him. Each drop-off grew more traumatic than the last, and he needed more soothing after every pick-up. Separation anxiety grew worse each day, rather than better. Night terrors were kicking in at night. Daycare may have been making work easier, but it was also making life harder. It was time for a change.
Since then, we have brought it all home to much better effect. For now, we have to make do with a patchwork of part-time of babysitters, while my wife and I stage an intensive tag-team effort around the eldest’s kindergarten schedule. It is hard on us both, but it is easier on the family and on our kids. You may read this as an indictment of the dual-income family. If so, read it again. Since we are working parents, the truth is more complex than that.
I would point out, however, that it is not the parents in troll stories who rescue their sons and daughters. It is only other sons and daughters who both see the danger of being in the company of trolls and are moved to do something about it. Given that these are stories passed down by the descendants of Vikings, that is a surprisingly astute observation about modern family life and the myopia that working parents can exhibit when we let market dynamics or peer pressure decide what is good for our kids. If the stories are to be believed, the whole point is to free them from the “troll cave,” wherever they may experience it.
© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Featured image © 2003 Howard Dickins, Flickr