The troll under the bridge

Is there a troll under that bridge? Underpass for the Canal du Midi bike trail.
Is there a troll under that bridge? My photo of an underpass for the Canal du Midi walk and bike trail, November 2013.

The wonderful walking and bike trail along the Canal du Midi in Toulouse sometimes goes under bridges to avoid a surface street. As much as I love forgetting about traffic, it can be downright spooky as the trail narrows, swoops downhill, approaches the water, and turns a corner.

I sometimes worry I might disturb a troll.

Trolls are Scandinavian in origin, and have about as many forms as stories about them. As far as I can tell, the original troll under the bridge is the one the three Billy Goats Gruff met.

The story has inspired several authors, including Stephen KingNeil Gaiman  and Terry Pratchett.

You don’t remember the story? I’ll re-tell it to you 

Once upon a time there were three brothers, the Billy Goats Gruff. Perhaps due to an acute lack of imagination on behalf of Mom & Pop Goat Gruff, all three kids were named Billy. (Yeah, I know, confusing…)

One day, Billy noticed that the grass was much greener on the other side of the river. (Heard that before?) The river was narrow, but deep. He’d avoided swimming lessons, because he was afraid of water, so he skipped along the river bank until he came upon a bridge.

He tippity-tapped onto the bridge. His little hooves woke up the Troll who was napping under the bridge.

“Who’s that tippity-tapping across my bridge?” The Troll was cranky. Who likes being woken up from a nap?

“Just me, the Little Billy Goat Gruff, on my way to the pasture,” Billy squeaked. (He was really small, the size of a Nigerian dwarf goat.)

“I’m going to gobble you up!”

Billy was a fast thinker. “Oh, if you want to, but I’m a runt, all bones and leather. My brother, who’s much juicier, will be by shortly.”

The troll wasn’t terribly hungry since he’d just ordered buffalo wings a few weeks earlier. Trolls are notoriously slow digesters. “Oh, well, whatever.” He turned over and fell back asleep.

Billy tippity-tapped to the other side, where he picked and chose the sweetest leaves of the meadow.

His middle brother, Billy, saw him from the other side and called out, “Hey, Billy ¿Qué pasa?”  (Yeah, I know, confusing…)

His little brother blinked once and kept on munching. So Billy trotted until he reached the bridge. He clippety-clopped onto the bridge, disturbing the Troll’s nap, yet again. The Troll once more made his threat. But Billy convinced him that his big brother would be coming along soon enough.

As the traditionally troubled middle kid, Billy resented his baby brother and considered the older one a big fat bully.

Speaking of which, Billy, who’d been wondering what his younger brothers were up to, finally saw them across the stream. “Dudes, whatcha doin’?” he bellowed.

Billy and Billy rolled their eyes and kept on munching. That bothered (big) Billy. What bothered him even more was that they were up to their knees (middle brother) and shoulders (little brother) in grass and he was  on the other side. He considered swimming across, but didn’t want to get his beautiful white coat wet.

So he halumphed along the river bank to the bridge and clunkety-clunked onto it. Now, (big) Billy was big, like a Saanen goat, and the bridge could barely hold him up.

The Troll saw his roof shaking and yelled, “Who’s that clunkety-clunking across my bridge?” He poked his head over the side and growled.

IMGP0474b troll 11-25-05_small
Now this is a troll. The wonderful 18-foot Fremont troll sculpture by Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead, moved under the Aurora Bridge in Seattle on Halloween 1990. Apparently this guy survives on car parts. You can follow him on twitter!

Billy was shocked at how ugly he was, eyes like hubcaps and a nose like a telephone pole, and skin that looked like the surface of the moon. He shoved him with his pointy horns and the Troll fell backwards into the raging stream, where it’s quite likely that he drowned.

After all, he’d absolutely refused to take swimming lessons and, even worse, it was a bright sunny day and we all know that Trolls turn to stone after long exposure to sunlight, and stones– well, they tend to sink.

Billy tossed his head and swaggered on across the bridge. After bullying Billy and Billy a bit, he was soon distracted by the juicy grass. There was more than enough for all three of them, for a while at least.

One moral of the story is to take swimming lessons 

It can also be a good idea to give your kids different names, unless you’re George Foreman, in which case your charm will let you get away with it.

What’s cool here 

Versions of this Norwegian story appear in other countries, usually with a wolf instead of a troll. It’s been classified under the category Eat me when I’m fatter, where a potential victim uses that phrase to buy time, and not always with a plan in hand.

My re-telling attributes the events to sibling rivalry, but the Billy Goats Gruff might have been quite intentionally strategic. After all, there was plenty of grass on the other side of the river.

Appeasing the water spirits: the bridge sacrifice.

George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey, circa 1985. The toll to cross the GWB, the busiest bridge in the world, is $13 if you don’t have EZ-Pass. Photo from the US Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record collections (HAER NY,31-NEYO,161-28, digital ID hhh.ny1264).

Even though no riddle is posed, the troll can be seen as the guardian of the river. Myths and folktales often speak of payment or a sacrifice to cross a river, usually to appease water spirits.

These payments can be in the form of money: such as the gold sometimes found in the foundations of old bridges.

But others say the bridge sacrifice means a child or person must die so the bridge can be built. Other times stealing a shadow is enough.

Another interpretation of the bridge sacrifice is that it alludes to the danger inherent in bridge building.

From trolls to tolls

While bridge construction continues to be dangerous and expensive, we’re much more likely to find a toll than a troll.

Have you run into any trolls lately? 


2 thoughts on “The troll under the bridge

    1. Thanks, Annie! The Belmont troll is pretty amazing. Apparently that’s a real VW bug in his hand, with (of course since this IS Seattle), CA plates. That helps with the idea of scale. It’s HUGE!

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