Trolls in fairytales are the perpetual outsiders. Noone wants to know where they come from and the only thing anyone want is to get rid of them as soon as possible. Perhaps not the worst of monsters, but violent enough to be non-persons. Christianity’s aversion against them is well known, but going further back in time doesn’t make any difference; Thor mainly fights trolls, and between the lines in the eddas we can see that troll was as much a slur then as it is today.
When John Bauer illustrated the swedish fairy tale collection ”Bland tomtar och troll” (litteral translation ”Among Gnomes and Trolls”) during the 1910s trolls were described as repulsive, dark skinned and with big noses. Some fifteen years before the nazis took over in Germany xenophobic slurs and propaganda were already in swing. Their immediate roots were already around thirty years old, and their fruits would crush jews, roma, homosexuals and everyone else not fitting the bill. One of the things paving the way was the malicious propaganda descriptions of jews that was spread, using the same wording as the stories John Bauer had to illustrate. Repulsive, dark and big nosed.
The trolls John Bauer painted were indeed dark skinned and had big noses – and were amiably cuddly.
Most looks like friendly moss covered stones with a curious interest in the human they meet – sometimes in stark contrast to the story’s description of a rude and aggressive behaviour. The exaggerated ”hawknose” so popular in racistic propaganda is rare. The trolls instead sports elongated straight or upnoses.
Let’s take a look at John Bauer himself
He was the second of three sons of a german immigrant, Joseph Bauer, and Emma Wadell who came from a swedish farmer family. Joseph Bauer had left Bavaria as an orphan when he was thirteen, and ended up in Sweden without a dime to his name. He managed to open a successfull charcuterie in Jönköping and did well in providing for his family. He didn’t share John’s interest in drawing, but didn’t object to him taking art lessons and becoming an artist.
Being of immigrant origin in Sweden wasn’t easy at the time, and though I can’t find any notes on how John Bauer faired I have a feeling he had to deal with racism and xenophobia. It’s tempting to think that he identified with the trolls, those perpetual outsiders he made parts of his childhood forest. Especially since he had a troll alter ego called ”Humpe” – the redheaded child in the picture below.
John Bauer died in an accident 1918, thirtysix years old. He was about to change styles, so we wouldn’t have seen more of his trolls (though we’d kept an awesome artist). Others, however, picked up. Fact is the entire view on trolls changed in Sweden the decades after his death. Whereas the picture of a troll internationally still is a dumb lump barely human or something more close to an animal than a person, the picture of a troll in Sweden is a rougher variant of an elf – a creature close to and enobled by nature. Eventhough they haven’t fully shed their dangerous nature the makeover is impressive. The outsiders have turned into people you want to know.
It’s hard for me to say how much of this that is because of John Bauer. His trolls became immensly popular when he lived and they remain so today. Perhaps he happened to be at the right place at the right time and his art went with the flow. These things happen. Yet, the decades after his death was among the darkest in Europe, which makes it tempting to think that he singlehandedly changed the view on one of our scarier monsters. Let’s stay content, though, with the fact that he made much to make trolls a positive entity in fairytales.
If you dig around a bit in the works of John Bauer I have no doubt you’ll find problematic stuff. Compared to him and his context we have a hundred years of advantage in facing our racism and dealing with it. He had a background noice of xenophobia and antisemitism that we can’t imagine, and things that are hopelessly racistic today may even have been progressive by contemporary standards. Still, he made something scary into something you wanted to befriend, a good exemple of the power to transform that every creator possess. That power is available to all of us, and perhaps it’s time to put an extra thought to what kind of pictures we want to paint.