Seventeen heads line the shelves at the Copenhagen warehouse where Thomas Dambo has been riding out the coronavirus pandemic. “But I didn’t kill them—I’m just getting them ready for my next project,” laughs the puckish Danish sculptor and self-proclaimed “recycle art activist” known for creating giant, outdoor trolls from salvaged or trashed wood.
Those massive noggins—each four to seven feet tall and bearing comical-yet-slightly-scary expressions (toothy yawns, huge smizes)—will soon be mounted on equally outsized bodies for Dambo’s latest installation, “The Great Troll Folk Fest.”
Over the next few months, with help from volunteers and staff (and funding via private donations), he’ll assemble and install 10 figures in all. The colossal 15- to 21-foot-tall giants will be hidden in lesser-known greenspaces around Denmark, including tiny islands near Copenhagen and out-of-the-way parks. He’ll release clues about their locations on social media. “It’s a kind of treasure hunt, a gift for families in Denmark, who may feel sad that they can’t go on vacation this summer,” says Dambo. “The trolls help remind us that there are these beautiful places practically in our backyards.”
Since 2014, Dambo has erected dozens of the wooden, folklore-inspired creatures in greenspaces and parks around the world: a seated, bearded dude in Copenhagen’s hippie enclave of Christiana; sister and brother trolls “lost” in Florida’s Pinecrest Gardens; a series of wooden giants (one playing a flute) outside of Seoul, South Korea. All utilise scrap materials from wherever they’re built: plywood that protected buildings from a hurricane becomes an “island guardian” in Culebra, Puerto Rico; fallen branches and twigs morph into spikey troll hairdos in Denmark.
“I want people to know that trash has value,” says Dambo. “And the trolls do that, and also help me tell stories, like the legends I grew up with.”
For anyone who lives in, or visits, Scandinavia, trolls are everywhere and nowhere, hidden in the woods and writ large in the region’s literature and tourism.
Long before trolls got turned into eco warriors by Dambo (or candy-colored cartoons in Trolls World Tour), they showed up in old Norse mythology and poetry as far back as 12th-century Iceland. “They could be big and ugly or fair and beautiful, but they were the ultimate others, somewhat like us, but different and more dangerous,” says Jonas Wellendorf, associate professor of Old Norse at the University of California, Berkeley.
Trolls had dual lessons to teach humankind: first, that the unknown world beyond the village or castle walls could be uncertain and potentially threatening; and second, that the risk of such exploration might yield knowledge and riches. “If you venture out into their wilderness, you most likely return with something valuable—gold, experience,” says Wellendorf. “Trolls pose a threat, but you can get something out of them if you are brave.”
In early literature and storytelling, trolls were often violent monsters or fearsome, intelligent guardians dwelling in mountains, rocks, or deep in the forest. Think huldras, long-tailed Norwegian enchantresses who lure men to be their boy toys, or Grendel, the “horrible demon” and “dire-mooded creature” from the old English Beowulf (set in Scandinavia and based on Norse myth). The former, played by actresses in red gowns, cheesily perform for tourists during one stop on Norway’s historic Flåm Railway.
Trolls might have stayed in Scandinavia permanently if it weren’t for two 19th-century Oslo folklorists, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, who gathered and published many traditional fairy tales in the 1840s Norske Folkeeventyr (Norse Folktales). In it, easy-to-fool trolls headline in stories like Boots and the Troll and Three Billy Goats Gruff. (Asbjørnsen, mutton-chopped and stern, is commemorated with a statue in Oslo’s St. Hanshaugen Park; a few miles away, Moe’s grave at the Vestre Aker cemetery is capped by a bust of him.) The books, inspired by the Brothers Grimm, were soon translated into nearly every language on the planet.
Perhaps most significantly, Norse Folktales gave trolls a new look thanks to artist Theodor Kittelsen, the most prominent of several illustrators for the popular collections. His wild-haired, droopy-nosed ogres were far goofier and more approachable than the mysterious outsiders of yore. You can spot his paintings and drawings of trolls, gnomes, and other fantastical beings at the Kittelsen Museum at the Cobalt Works, an indoor-outdoor culture and history complex an hour’s drive east of Oslo.
The fairy tales’ popularity paved the way for the jolly troll statues now planted outside what seems like every hotel and café in rural Norway, plus the hordes of gap-toothed, grinning plastic figurines at gift shops. At Lillehammer’s Hunderfossen Family Park, kid-friendly attractions inspired by the stories include a 45-foot-tall troll holding the Trollsalan restaurant (the trollsuppe, thankfully, is just beef stew) and a diorama of Billy Goats Gruff.
“There’s a certain amount of these kitschy, fun, tourist trolls, but they don’t have much to do with Norse mythology,” says Norwegian film director André Øvredal, whose 2010 mockumentary Troll Hunter delves into the more traditional, medieval-style monsters. “I grew up with troll stories, and they were really scary, violent creatures who’d rip each other’s arms off.”
He conjured up those sort of trolls in the low-budget flick, shooting scenes in forests around Oslo as well as in the northern Dovre region, where he says the pristine mountains and fjords “make you feel like you are in the land of the trolls, and you can imagine that sort of classic monster movie set up where the natural world is in conflict with the human one.” In Øvredal’s movie, invading troll territory doesn’t turn out well for the hapless documentary crew.
But Dambo’s art takes a different tack, using mythology playfully to draw humans back to nature. His trolls “interact” with tourists and the world in whimsical ways, like the waterside “Hector Protector” on Culebra, which grasps a lantern and becomes a kind of lighthouse. In the Wynwood Walls arts district in Miami, another wooden giant lounges on an overturned car, Dambo’s cheeky statement against fossil fuels.
Artful touches—jumbo earlobes designed to attract bird’s nests and gaping mouths meant for kiddos to scramble through—make these beings seem friendlier than their ancient Norse counterpoints. Dambo hopes these goliaths stapled and nailed together from old house shingles and store pallets will make people reconsider sustainability and the environment.
“I want to take trash and turn it into something that will open people’s eyes and minds,” he says. “We shouldn’t throw the world out—then we’ll have a world with no mountains, no woods.”
And no habitats where trolls might roam.