White Wizard Male Privilege: Gendered Witchcraft and Racialized Magic

Growing up, I always loved wizards. All the most epic stories seemed to have them: mysterious wanderers dispensing arcane wisdom and providing just the right information at just the right time to just the right person. Wizards—in particular white male wizards—enjoy a distinct privilege in contemporary Fantasy literature. They are part of a larger trend identified by Helen Young as “habits of whiteness” within the genre. Wizards are often presented as mythic, almost godlike, figures who wield cosmic power and inevitably play a pivotal role in the narrative even if only from the periphery.

Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005).

Witches, on the other hand, get the short end of the magic wand. From early medieval characterizations of Odin and Merlin to modern Fantasy figures such as Gandalf and Dumbledore, wizened male magic-users are repeatedly glorified, often leaving the more pejorative treatments for characterizations of magical women, especially witches. This wizard male privilege reinforces an ancient tradition of misogyny that likewise reaches back to the classical Greco-Roman myths of Medea and medieval tales of Morgan Le Fay, and which extends to include modern antagonists such as the Land of Oz’s infamous Wicked Witch of the West and Narnia’s White Witch, Jadis. This intersectional blog continues our recent series on magic which has recently explored issues of plague-related magical thinking, late medieval necromancy and sexist witch-stereotypes.

When you think of a wizard, what comes to mind? Probably some grandfatherly magician, a devout guardian of arcane knowledge and power—incorruptible and undaunted—who will face any foe and sacrifice everything for the greater good. These brilliant men are often benevolent and trustworthy advisors, stewarding from their ivory towers and steering the destinies of younger heroes. Someone like this:

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure (2012).

This image of Gandalf from Peter Jackson’s film adaptions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit highlights the way in which wizards are visually represented: wizened, powerful and good. This positive treatment of wisemen can be trace in the Abrahamic tradition to figures such as Moses, with his staff, curses and divine knowledge, to the three Magi—zoroastrian priests from Persia—who come to visit Christ and recognize his divinity by astrology. In the medieval tradition, King Arthur’s trusty magician Merlin is credited for building Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth fanciful Historia regum Britanniae helping to cement Merlin thereafter as an almost archetypal wizard throughout Europe. The Old Norse-Icelandic god of war and occult knowledge, Odin, likewise provides a similar image of a wise man who knows the secret runes and can therefore harness its power and magic. Even in sagas recorded centuries after Christianization, Odin is often still portrayed as generally wise and powerful.

Left: The wizard, Merlin, the Nuremberg Chronicles (CXXXVIIIr), by Hartmann Schedel (1493). Right: The Norse god, Odin, with his two ravens Huginn and Muninn, from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript, Ólafur Brynjúlfsson 447 NKS 1867 4to, 94r (c. 1760).

The images of the noble wizard as a knowledgeable magician is later carried forward and adapted from characters such as the early modern Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest to iconic wizards from contemporary Fantasy literature such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf and J.K. Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore. Wizards are principally characterized as knowledge-keepers and their power comes from their supreme intellect and years of devoted study—especially their command over magic words and occult language—emphasizing arcane wisdom and magical literacy above all. They are mentors. They are sages. Sometime they are prophets or even saviors (from Mallory’s Merlin saving an infant King Arthur to Rawling’s Dumbledore saving an infant Harry Potter).

Dumbledore (Richard Harris) saves an infant Harry Potter and delivers him to his aunt and uncle in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).

Throughout literary history, wizards are most often of the alchemist and astronomer sort. Of course, there are also the characteristically evil sorcerers (who often take the title of “dark lord”), which include Fantasy archvillains—such as Tolkien’s Sauron or Rawling’s Voldemort. The evil sorcerer trope also encompasses complicated, conflicted or converted wizards, such as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings and Severus Snape in Harry Potter, in addition to lesser known mages such Ged from Earthsea and Raistlin Majere from Dragonlance. Most modern examples of evil sorcerers and “dark lords” are monsterized or racialized (often both), and depicted as inhuman in the fashion of a witch.

Above: the Dark Lord, Sauron (Sala Baker), in the Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Below: the Dark Lord, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 2 (2011).

The evil sorcerer caricature likewise overlaps with a medieval magical tradition known as necromancy, which often involves imitation and perversion of the Christian mass and church ritual, with the goal of summoning and controlling demons. For this reason, Richard Kieckhefer describes this form a of magic as “demonic” but it is no less learned than other arcane and magical arts, and probably for this reason, necromancers are likewise more often gendered male. Indeed, Gandalf’s mysterious archnemesis in the Hobbit is ambiguously referred to as simply “the Necromancer” who comes from the east and requires a team of elves and wizards to handle.

Now, when you think of a witch, what comes to mind? Probably a withered, old hag—a wicked crone—a gnarled and twisted monster. These terrifying women will enchant or deceive anyone who wanders into their woods, intent on bewitching men or cannibalizing children. Someone like this:

A witch from Jim Henson’s film adaptation (1990) based on Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1983).

This image above is from Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1983), a telling example from modern literature which perpetuates the demonization and dehumanization of those women labeled witches. The gendered monsterization of certain women on the periphery of society—in particular midwives, spinster, healers and widows—had real world consequences. During the early modern witch-hunts throughout Europe, women were disproportionately the targets of witchcraft accusations and executions. Moreover, prophetic male mystics from the Middle Ages, such as Joachim of Fiore (1202 CE) and Nostradamus (1566 CE), were widely revered as wise men, whereas prophetic female mystics, such as Marguerite Porete (1310 CE) and Joan of Arc (1431 CE), are much more frequently burned at the stake under pretense of witchcraft and heresy. The early modern witch-hunts, which remain one of history’s largest scale gender-specific example of institutionalized misogyny and female persecution. Women were overwhelmingly the target of witchcraft accusations and trials in both Europe and New England, and historians such as Brian Levack estimate that there were over 100,000 trials and that “European communities executed about 60,000 witches during the early modern period,” making it the most significant and alarming historical instance of gendercide in Europe.

Witch-burning from German Broadsheet, Charles Walker Collection, Zentralbibliothek, Zürich (1555).

Ancient and medieval lore generally regards witches with suspicion and witchcraft with hostility. Indeed, in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas (c. 1100-1500 CE), witchcraft (known as seiðr) is almost always dangerous and frequently linked to heroes’ deaths. Much earlier, Medea is portrayed as sometimes helpful though oftentimes harmful, observable in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE). Similarly, Morgan Le Fay is an enigmatic character, who is primarily characterized as a great healer in early romances such as those by Chrétien de Troyes (1191 CE), though she is treated more pejoratively by the likes of later medieval authors such as Thomas Mallory in his Le Morte d’Arthur (1485 CE). Both Medea and Morgan contribute to the image of a glamorous witch, one which is balanced by the more regular image of the decrepit, wicked witch epitomized by Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters in Macbeth (1606 CE). Sometime witches are not one or the other, but rather both simultaneously hideous and enchanting, such as the witch in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400 CE).

Left: Woodcut of witches flying, from Mathers’ Wonders of the Invisible World (1689) and used in an 18th-century pamphlet about the Lancashire witches. Right: Medea gives new life to an old ram through magic, ceramic pottery “red-figured hydria” (480-470BCE), produced in Greece (Attica) and discovered in Italy (Vulci).

Witch-stereotypes, discussed at length by Levack, emphasize how witches operated on the fringes of society. Their magic is generally regarded as primarily folkloric and herbal in nature, derived from specific ingredients and powerful concoctions, connecting them to what Kieckheifer refers to as “natural magic” that centers on unlocking the occult powers of nature. Indeed, witches may be beautiful or ugly—but whatever the case they are almost always conniving and treacherous—a far cry from presentations of wizards as kind embodiments of timeless wisdom.

Cannibalistic witch from Hansel and Gretel, a German folktale recorded by the Brothers Grimm, illustration by Arthur Rackham (1909).

Although witches never got a fair shake, things get exceptionally worse following Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer’s publication of the infamous Malleus maleficarum “The Hammer of Witches” (1487), which codifies witch-stereotypes in an effort to provide an inquisitor’s guide to witch-hunting prior to the Protestant Reformation and the major outbreaks of witch-hunting hysteria in places like England and Germany. The Malleus characterizes witchcraft as a form of demonic magic and outlines specific behaviors and rituals in which witches allegedly engaged, in particular the dreaded witch’s sabbath, depicted as a massive gathering in the forest in which evil spells and orgies with demons were purportedly standard practice.

Witches at witches’ sabbath (Walpurgis Night) on the Blocksberg (Brocken mountain), woodcut, Leipzig, 1669.

Although thousands of women and men were accused and executed under pretense of witchcraft across Europe, in the United States, witch hunting and hysteria is often discussed in isolation as a brief phenomenon resulting from a combination of religious fundamentalism and political rivalry in New England. This horrific episode in early American history was further popularized by Arthur Miller’s Crucible, which recounts the Salem witch trials. Although the American witch trials pale in comparison to their European counterparts, the increased racialization of witchcraft in the “New World” can be observed from the treatment of Tituba, an African slave and the first woman accused of witchcraft in New England, to later myths surrounding figures such as Marie Laveau, the famous Louisiana Creole herbalist, midwife and practitioner of Voodoo.

Tituba, the first woman to be accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts; illustrated by Alfred Fredericks for W.C. Bryant’s A Popular History of the United States

The standard, monsterized, racialized and genderized image of a wicked witch—crafted from a culmination of ancient, medieval and modern stereotypes—has expanded in contemporary popular culture, and white wizard male privilege looms as large as ever. Modern literary examples further demonize witches and folktales, such as Russian stories of the conflict between the benevolent winter-wizard Morozko, a grandfather winter character, and the notorious Baba Yaga, who remains one of the most popular witches in modern Russia. Again, the patriarchal image of a white wizard is complemented by his adversary, the wicked, old witch-woman who lurks in the forest and preys on children.

The Three Witches, or the Weird Sisters‘ [‘Die drei Hexen’], Johann Heinrich Füssli, (1783).

This blog aims to illustrate the magical double standards embedded in respective idolization of wizards and demonization of witches throughout Western literary history which persists today and are continually displayed in the visual rhetoric of modern representations of magic-using women and men.

One way to demonstrate this tradition of misogyny with respect to gendered magic, which I am identifying as wizard male privilege, is to view some depictions of witches and wizards from popular literature juxtaposed against each other:

Prospero and Sycorax from William Shakespeare’s Tempest:

Left: Prospero in John White Abbott’s ‘Prospero commanding Ariel‘ (1829) in Folger Shakespeare Library. Right: Sycorax in Candice Lin’s Sycorax’s Collections (Happiness), Koenig & Clinton, New York (2011).

Perhaps as important as Moses, Merlin or Odin in establishing wizard-stereotypes and white male wizard privilege is the character of Prospero from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As his Weird Sisters epitomize literary witch-stereotypes, Prospero represents an archetypal wizard—a brilliant man of pure heart, who prizes learning and knowledge above all—and whose arcane knowledge allows him to control spirits of the island, like Ariel, and defeat the former ruler of the island—the evil and racialized witch Sycorax, who is mother to the monster Caliban. Like Salem’s Tituba, Sycorax represents an early modern racialization of witches, which served to uphold European colonialism, genocide and slavery during the early modern era.

The Wizard of Oz & the Wicked Witch of the West from Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz (left) & Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz film (1939).

This classic pair are a distinctly American wizard and witch, and they are dramatized in one of the first color motion pictures (1939). Since the film played up the use of color, the prominent image of green-skinned witch—a racialization and monsterization of her—has become almost ubiquitous in visual depictions contributing to the development of witch-stereotypes in American popular culture. However, Baum’s The Wizard of Oz novel, which does not feature green-skinned wicked witches, also offers an alternative to witch-stereotypes by providing “good witches” to balance the wicked ones. These good witches are as beautiful and wonderful as wicked witches are hideous and horrific, and notably these good witches are white, while their wicked counterparts are non-white. While The Wizard of Oz includes the possibility of good witches, nevertheless to be regarded as other, weird or nonconformist is condemnable and “wicked” by definition of witch stereotypes and gendered beauty standards in the film, a point which invites further inquiry regarding the issue of gender normativity in images of “good” and “wicked” witches in the The Wizard of Oz.

Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit & Jadis (the White Witch), from C.S. Lewis’ Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Left: Gandalf from Rankin & Bass’ movie (1977) based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937). Right The White Witch, Jadis, Queen of Narnia from CBS’ movie (1979) based on C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).

Comparing Gandalf and Jadis is, of course, limited in so far as they are characters from different books by different authors. Nonetheless, Tolkien and Lewis—both members of the literary group known as the “Inklings”—in some ways share literary tastes and interests, being two of the most influential modern Fantasy authors and close friends. The Odinic Gandalf, perhaps even more than Merlin, serves as an archetypal wizard in modern literature and popular culture, while Jadis (better known as the “White Witch”) is the usurping “Queen of Narnia” who is simultaneously beauteous and hideous, but above all dangerous, like the Hans Christen Andersen’s Snow Queen upon whom she is based. Gandalf’s transformation from a “grey wanderer” to the “white wizard” marks the pinnacle of his divine power actualized by his Christlike death and resurrection. Both Gandalf and Jadis contribute significantly at an important time to the development of modern wizard and witch stereotypes in contemporary Fantasy literature.

Merlin & Mad Madam Mim from Disney’s Sword in the Stone:

Merlin and Mad Madam Mim have a wizard’s duel over young King Arthur, who has been transformed into a sparrow, in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (1963).

Depictions of Merlin and Morgan Le Fay as magical adversaries have continued, and usually the standard wizard and witch stereotypes apply. However, in Disney’s adaption of T.S. White’s Once and Future King, Merlin’s rival sorceress, Mad Madam Mim, is even more stereotypical in her representation, following in line with a general trend in Disney films which repeatedly cast villainous women in these terms. The two nemeses engage in a “wizard’s duel” where they transform into various creatures and attack each other, and rather predictably, Mim cheats but Merlin nevertheless outsmarts her. Mim is by no means the only Disney witch, but rather just one iteration of many, and with very few—very recent—exceptions, in Disney films, witches are treacherous and evil.

Four Disney Witches. Top left: Wicked Queen from Snow White (1937). Right left: Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959). Bottom left: Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989). Bottom right: Mother Gothel from Tangled (2010).

Indeed, what Disney films have done in terms of upholding witch-stereotypes is plainly horrendous. From the earliest witch stepmother, the wicked queen from Snow White, to subsequent witches such as Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Ursula from Little Mermaid and Mother Gothel from Tangled, the evil witch-antagonist has been a featured favorite. The metamorphic woman—simultaneously seductive and decrepit—is a stock villain appearing frequently in Disney’s films, which regularly present sexist and racist depictions of witches and wizards. The witch-antagonist often represents a challenge to the established order: she is powerful and independent, which of course makes her dangerous. To my mind, this is probably the most egregious example of latent misogyny embedded in Disney’s films and the visual rhetoric undoubtedly continues to impact generations of girls and boys.

Four Disney Wizards. Top left: Merlin from The Sword in the Stone (1963). Right left: King Triton from The Little Mermaid (1989). Bottom left: Jafar from Aladdin (1992). Bottom right: Dr. Facilier from Princess and the Frog (2009).

Disney has similarly upheld white male wizard privilege at virtually every turn. Disney antagonists are often racialized sorcerers, such as the ambitious royal vizier Jafar and Dr. Facilier “Mr. Shadow” from the Princess and the Frog (2009). Both are characteristically evil, while older and whiter magic-users like Merlin and King Trident from the Little Mermaid (1989) are depicted as distinctly “good” in that they are patriarchal stewards of the status quo and established order. This is a blatantly observable trend of white supremacy in Disney films, which repeatedly portray racialized and orientalized spellcasters as villains.

Schmendrick & Mommy Fortuna from Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn:

Schmendrick (left) and Mommy Fortuna (right) from Rankin & Bass’ movie (1982) based on Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968).

This classic Fantasy story, brought to motion pictures by Rankin & Bass, centers on the journeys of a wandering unicorn in search of her kin. Along the way, an old witch—Mommy Fortuna—enchants the unicorn with a spell and captures her in order to use the creature in her “Midnight Carnival” as a spectacle. Mommy Fortuna is a classic crone, complete with an ominous raven and a brutish henchman. However, luckily for the unicorn, there is also a magician, the young and fumbling Schmendrick, who not only helps her escape from Mommy Fortuna (who is eaten by a harpy also freed during their escape), but is her trusted companion, advisor and friend throughout her travels. He serves her faithfully until at last they discover the truth about whether or not she is the last unicorn. Schmendrick is a bit of a fool but good, through and through, while Mommy Fortuna is greedy, fraudulent and opportunistic.

Albus Dumbledore and Bellatrix Lestrange from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter:

Left: Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Right: Belletrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 2 (2011).

J.K. Rowling more than any modern Fantasy author explores, adapts, and upholds wizard and witch-stereotypes in both the book and film versions of the Harry Potter series. In her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when describing the origins of Hogwarts, Rowling briefly contextualizes her magical school with a historical reference to the early modern witch-hunts, stating that “They [Godrich Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Raven Claw and Salazar Slytherin] built this castle together, far from prying Muggle eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution” (“Chapter 9: The Writing on the Wall”). While she may be emphasizing that women received the vast majority of the accusations and persecution, by listing “witches” before “wizards” in this passage, this point is never made explicitly. Nevertheless, Rowling elevates witches to their rightful place alongside their distinguished wizard counterparts in halls of Hogwarts and the broader wizarding world of Harry Potter.

Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).

However, it is worth noting that, although Rowling is a woman, both her main protagonist and the most powerful of her “good” wizards are male magic-users. In her characterization of the wise headmaster and superstar wizard, Albus Dumbledore, she reinforces every white wizard stereotype, following directly in Gandalf’s footsteps. On the other hand, Belletrix Lestrange—whose French-sounding name recalls the medieval Morgan Le Fay—represents a caricature of witch-stereotypes as she is one of the most murderous of Voldemort’s evil gang known as Death-eaters. Of course, it could be argued that Dumbledore and Lestrange represent as likely a pairing as professor Minerva McGonagall and Voldemort (though in reverse), which may be true, but even in the later comparison male privilege is maintained as the dark lord (although an equal match for Dumbledore) could easily outperform even the most powerful witch at Hogwarts.

The Greenseer (Three-Eyed Raven) & Melisandre from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire:

Left: Greenseer rooted to the weirwood in Game of Thrones S4.E10 “The Children” (2014); Right: Melisandre revealing her true form in Game of Thrones S6.E1 “The Red Woman” (2016).

In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones television series based on the books, again usual tropes are employed with respect of wizards and witches. The mystical and mysterious Greenseer, who resides in the roots of a Weirwood tree far north of the Wall appears like Merlin in his cave, becoming one with the land itself. In the film adaptation, he is primarily known as the “Three-eyed Raven” because he appears frequently to Bran Stark as a raven with a foreseeing third eye. The Greenseer is a traditional wizard in many ways: he is an ancient, wise and thoroughly “good” mentor, who selflessly sacrifices himself to save mankind and pass on his position to Bran.

Melisandre dines with Stannis Baratheon at Dragonstone in Game of Thrones, S2E1 “The North Remembers” (2012).

Alternatively, the “Red Woman” Melisandre is a fire priestess of Rh’llor, the monotheistic God of Light, and she is a much more ethically complicated figure. Like her shape-shifty literary predecessors, Melisandre is sexualized and seductive, but she is also ancient, and her beauty is, in truth, nothing more than a glamor illusion as her authentic form is that of an old crone. Although she seems to have some regret by the end of the film series, Melisandre, nevertheless, burns many innocent people in the name of her religion—at times even immolating children—to gain power and favor with her god. For Melisandre, the ends always justify the means, as she is willing sacrificing whomever she believes benefits her cause most. Her final self-combustion marks her personal defeat but does not save or benefit anyone else.

Deckard Cain and the witch Adria from Blizzard’s Diablo:

The sage, Deckard Cain (left), and the witch, Adria (right) from Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

Wizard and witch stereotypes have unsurprisingly infiltrated the world of Fantasy gaming as well. In Blizzard’s Diablo game, there is a classic white wizard, Deckard Cain, who is introduced as an omniscient loremaster able to identify any magical item and weapon. Cain starts off seemingly rather old and feeble, if knowledgeable, but in each iteration of Diablo, he gets wiser and more powerful, counted as the “last Horadrim” and final member of this guild of arcane scholars. His character is a fixture of the Diablo games, where he repeatedly serves as a steadfast white wizard figure.

Deckard Cain reads arcane tome with staff in hand, embodying the white wizard modern Fantasy literary trope, in Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

After raising Adria’s orphaned daughter, Leah, “Uncle Deckard” is rescued by the player in Diablo III and once more offers his sagely wisdom. Cain’s noble death at the end of Act I is the direct result of his refusal to conceded to the witch Magda’s demand that he “use his Horadric powers” to reforge a heavenly sword of the angel, Tyrael. Magda is represented as a Maleficent-like fairy-witch, and she ultimately kills Cain and kidnaps the wounded angel. She reappears later as a game boss for the player to battle. After Leah unleashes a magical blast causing Magda to retreat, Cain uses his final ounce of strength to save the world by remaking the angel’s sword, a feat only a Horadrim could accomplish, and the player is then charged with the task of uniting the celestial weapon with its wielder.

Scene of Cain’s death by the witch, Magda in Act I of Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

Adria, the witch who lives in her hut at the edge of the village, Tristram, experiences a very different characterization. She starts off as essentially a potion merchant, who seems altogether neutral and thereby helpful to the player. Adria later returns to the storyline in Diablo III, where her character takes a grim turn for the worse into misogynistic witch-stereotypes. Adria is reportedly impregnated by the player character from the original Diablo (assumed to be male, despite a female rouge character option in the first game), and is thereby sexualized as often occurs with representations of witches. After pretending to support the player’s efforts, Adria unveils that she copulated with Diablo himself and that Leah is therefore demonic offspring.

Heinrich Kramer & Jakob Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, BEIC 9477645 (1669).

This aligns Adria’s character with prescriptions of witches’ behavior in the Malleus, especially the section of the treatise that purports to answer a blatantly misogynistic—fantastical and grotesque—theological question: Quo ad maleficas cum daemonibus concurrentes: Cur mulieres amplius inueniantur hac haeresi infectae quam viri “With respect to witches copulating with demons: Why is it that women are more susceptible to be infected by this heresy than men?” (Part I, Question VI). After Leah’s big paternity reveal, Adria uses a black soulstone and sacrifices her own daughter to bring Diablo back into the moral world. Although the witch escapes, in the subsequent expansion pack, Reaper of Souls, she meets her end after transforming into a demon and fighting against the player as a game boss.

Scene of Adria’s betrayal and murder of Leah in order to summon Diablo in Act III of Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

Also, in Diablo III, there is the inclusion of a peripheral character Zoltun Kulle, who is a mad wizard striving to become a dark lord. Kulle comes from the kingdom of Caldeum, represented as a stereotypical Middle Eastern realm and named “the jewel of the East.” From the onset, Kulle is depicted as an evil, Jafar-like sorcerer. Although Kulle was a formidable wizard in life and one of the founders of the Horadrim, he is corrupted by the power of the black soulstone and becomes a monster, who continues to haunt and terrorize from beyond the grave. Like with Adria, after working for a while together, the orientalized wizard betrays the player and becomes a game boss. Indeed, Diablo III upholds—with the characters of Deckard Cain, Adria and Zoltun Kulle—virtually every gender and racial stereotype with respect to competing characterizations of magic-users in Fantasy literature and popular medievalism.

Zoltun Kulle, who ultimately deceives and betrays the player character in Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012).

These selected examples are but a few, and there are abundant others that could be added to further demonstrate the sexist and racist rhetoric embedded in depictions of wicked witches, dark sorcerers, and white wizards. From just this brief and incomplete review of literary representations of witches and wizards, it is clear that sexist and racist stereotypes have not only endured but have deepened since ancient and medieval times. White wizard male privilege continues to thrive in contemporary Fantasy literature, film and games. This cannot be ignored because these stock characterizations reinforce problematic gender and racial stereotypes. They misrepresent, and in a sense seem even to validate, the historical tragedy of early modern witch-hunting in Europe—one of the most widespread and gendered-specific persecution of women in history. Like the “dark lord” and evil sorcerer exceptions, the modern “good witch” exception relies largely on visual rhetoric, primarily drawn from the character of Glinda, who is coded white and defined in contrast to the green Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz film (1937).

Glinda the Good Witch (left) & Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz film (1939).

In modern times, the new age religion known as Wicca offers a feminist reclaiming and rebuke of conventional characterization of witches by understanding witchcraft instead as a symbol of female autonomy and empowerment. This theme is popularized in contemporary revisionist literary reimaginations such as Gregory Maguire’s revisionist novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West which casts Glinda as the villain and the once wicked witch is given the name Elphaba, transformed into an underdog protagonist—the misunderstood victim of systemic prejudices and unfortunate circumstances. Of course, even very recent films featuring witches that in some ways seem to fall into this recent literary trend, such as Robert Egger’s The VVitch: A New England Folktale (2015) and Aguirre-Sacasa’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), perpetuate many problematic witch-stereotypes,

While reparative portraits of wizards and witches do exist—such interpretations mark the exceptions that prove the rule. The internalized rule remains one of white wizard male privilege, a sexist and racist double-standard demonstrated by the uneven and repeatedly monsterized treatment of witches and female magic-users.

The Witches’ Sabbath’ by Francisco Goya (1797-1798).

While Wicca and other modern practices of witchcraft seek to redefine witches a symbol of woman power, on the other hand, the way in which “wizard” has become appropriated by certain groups, who seem to recognize the implicit sexist and racist rhetoric conveyed by images of white male wizards in modern medievalism, is much more troubling. As has been widely discussed, especially by medievalists of color, white supremacists and alt-right groups readily appropriate medieval images and symbols in their efforts to perpetuate the erroneous narrative that the Middle Ages was a homogeneous historical period. This myth has been repeatedly debunked by scholars but nonetheless persists especially in groups who identify as white nationalist. Indeed, the most infamous American white supremacist group—the nefarious Klu Klux Klan—has long been leveraging this fallacious rhetorical presentation of the Middle Ages as uniformly white since the end of slavery in the United States, and among their most exalted titles include the designations of Grand Wizard and Imperial Wizard.

KKK Grand Wizard, photo by Martin (ARETE13) on Flickr via Creative Commons (2009).

Wizard will likely remain a fixture in Fantasy literature and popular medievalism. And, until there is more room for wizards of every color in the genre, and witches that can be both good and powerful without prescribing to heteronormative gender stereotypes, white wizard male privilege—a literary example of both misogyny and white supremacy—will no doubt persist.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Selected Sources

Baum, Frank. The Wizard of Oz (1900).

—, & Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Wizard of Oz [film] (1939).

Beagle, Peter. The Last Unicorn (1968).

—, & Rankin & Bass. The Last Unicorn (1982).

Blizzard Entertainment. Diablo (1997).

—. Diablo II (2000).

—. Diablo III (2012).

—. Diablo III: Reaper of Souls (2014).

Dahl, Roald. The Witches (1983).

Disney [The Walt Disney Company]. Snow White (1937).

—. Sleeping Beauty (1959).

—. The Sword in the Stone (1963).

—. Little Mermaid (1989).

—. Aladdin (1992).

—. The Princess & the Frog (2009).

—. Tangled (2010).

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicle of Narnia (1950-1956).

—, & CBS. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (1979).

—, & Disney [The Walt Disney Company] The Chronicle of Narnia [film series] (2005-2008). 

Martin, George R.R. Song of Ice and Fire (1996-2011).

—, & HBO. Game of Thrones (2011-2019).

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter (1997-2007).

—, & Warner Brothers. Harry Potter [film series] (2001-2011).

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible (1953).

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest (1611).

—. Macbeth (1606).

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit (1937).

—. The Lord of the Rings (1954).

—, & Rankin & Bass. The Hobbit (1977).

—, Peter Jackson, & Warner Brothers. The Lord of the Rings [film series] (2001-2003).

—, Peter Jackson, & Warner Brothers. The Hobbit [film series] (2012-2014).

Further Reading

Birks, Arran. “The ‘Hammer of Witches’: An Earthquake in the Early Witch Craze.” The Historian (2020).

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 

Kickhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. Routledge, 1976.

—. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Kim, Dorothy. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (2017).

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Malleus Maleficarum, the Medieval Witch Hunter Book.” ThoughtCo (2019).

Levack, Brian. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

Lomuto, Sierra.  “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016).

Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. New York: Routledge, 2016.  

Internet Trolls: Monsters Haunting the World Wide Web

Wendy and Brian Froud, book cover of ‘Trolls’ (2012).

In continuing our previous conversation surrounding the semantics of trǫll in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, and the evolution of the term in modern English, we turn our attention to contemporary applications of the term, particularly in the context of internet trolls and trolling. The concept of  internet trolls builds on the image of a goblin or a giant stalking and skulking about in the dark and the implication that these people are perhaps ugly. This produces a harmful stereotype of “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as Donald Trump remarked in a 2016 debate, in a diversionary (and rather ironic) attempt to draw attention away from evidence of Russian meddling in his favor during the most recent U.S. presidential election.

Harry Potter (Daniel Jacob Radcliffe) holding his invisibility cloak in Chris Columbus’s ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001).

However, the reality is that the online shield of anonymity operates as a cloak of invisibility, not unlike the invisibility cloak worn by Harry Potter as he explores Hogwarts castle at night or the tarnkappe “cloak of concealment” that Sîfrit [Siegfried] receives from a dwarf named Alberich in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. Online anonymity often renders one’s physical fitness either irrelevant or artificial anyway, while at the same time it protects the identities of nefarious actors, thereby allowing them to troll the internet unseen or in disguise. Indeed, the ugliness of internet trolls has everything to do with their emotionally pathetic behavior characterized by cowardly hatred and blind rage.

BrittMartin, ‘Internet Troll’ (2014 – 2020).

Considering this semantic range, a trǫll is not much more specific than the general concept of a “monster” that encompasses everything from sorcerers to goblins and giants to dragons. As we have seen, the medieval tradition bears out the vagueness of this term as a category of being. While the giant-trǫll may be one of the most common applications of the term in saga literature, modern representations of trolls suggest far more uniformity than evidence from medieval literature demonstrates.

However, even the modern sense of troll retains some flexibility, for in addition to the giant-trǫll, much smaller goblin-like representations of trolls (manifesting in the modern troll doll phenomenon) also features prominently in modern medievalism from early modern fairy tales, like those in the Grimm brothers‘ and Hans Christian Andersen‘s collections, to contemporary fantasy literature and film.

Allen Douglas, ‘The Brothers Gruff’ (2020).

If a troll is principally a monster lurking in the shadows, then the contemporary use of the term to describe a form of cyber-bullying is especially apt. Not everyone agrees on the precise definition of a modern internet troll, and it seems that—in this sense—the semantic ambiguity of the word endures. For some a troll is specifically someone interested in online agitation for the purposes of entertainment, for others a troll is essentially comparable to a cyber-bully and internet stalker. As with some of their medieval counterparts, internet trolls may hunt in packs or prowl alone, though they no longer hide under bridges and caves but instead lurk in the recesses of the world wide web.

The monstrous vitriol, stalking and harassment in which internet trolls engage is notorious, especially on social media platforms such as Twitter, and has furthered cultural trends in discourse toward antagonism rather than cooperation, leading Melania Trump to launch a campaign as first lady against cyber-bullying and online harassment, in other words against the internet trolls.

Alexander Pavlov, ‘Internet Troll Sitting at the Computer’ Vector Illustrations (2003-2020).

Internet trolls have developed a terrible reputation as being a cowardly group of angry individuals. Bernie Sanders, despite unequivocally disavowing any internet trolls among the ranks of his supporters and calling for a government of compassion and justice, suffered from a lasting stereotype of the “Bernie-bro” during both his presidential campaigns, which characterized his grassroots movement as an army of internet trolls, primarily comprised of angry white men terrorizing Twitter. Although a recent Harvard study revealed that the “Bernie-bro” narrative was a myth and suggested that political trolling occurred by supporters of every Democratic candidate at similar rates, this caricature proved impossible for Sanders to shake as a result of the public disdain for internet trolls.

Steve Sack, ‘Troll Trouble’ Star Tribune (2020).

This Harvard study, however, highlighted a different but related issue—namely how ubiquitous trolling has become and the damage it has wrought upon ethical discussion and political conversations in this country regardless of which candidate one supports or with which party one affiliates.

Although Joe Biden does not have the same online presence as Sanders, and has promised to restore decency, he nevertheless embodied the trollish spirit of combativeness, which permeates social media discourse, in his everyday interactions with voters on the campaign trail. Biden repeatedly told those who disagree with him that they should vote for someone else, and at times getting into near physical altercations with Americans who challenged him on his record and policies. Despite both Democratic candidates’ feisty reputations (or in Sanders’ case the reputation of his supporters), both Bernie and Biden were notably amicable and referred to each other frequently and intentionally as friends during the primary. Sanders‘ recent endorsement of Joe Biden for president as the Democratic nominee then comes as no surprise and underscores a shared sense of party unity with the goal of winning back the White House.

US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden hug at February’s debate, Getty Images (2020).

When responding to charges of a “Bernie-bro” culture among his supporters, Sanders has wondered if again, as in 2016, Russian media (especially bots and trolls) might be targeting his campaign, though this claim has been contested. Sanders also noted that in fact some of the most vicious trolling has been aimed at his surrogates and supporters of his campaign and progressive agenda, especially women of color, including his campaign co-chair Nina Turner, and the freshmen congresswomen known as “the squad” three of whom have endorsed Sanders, namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. In making this point, Sanders shifted the spotlight onto some of the most marginalized voices in our government who face some of the most vile and threatening trolls haunting the internet.

US Representatives Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a press conference on July 15, 2019 to address remarks President Donald Trump Twitter attacks on them. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images (2019).

In our own field of medieval studies, we have observed a similar phenomenon. Medievalists of color, including junior scholars such as Dorothy Kim, Mary Rambaran-Olm, Adam Miyashiro, Sierra Lomuto, Seeta Chaganti and others, have become the target of alt-right trolls as a result of their speaking up against white nationalist appropriations of medieval history, literature and culture and raising the issue of racism within the field itself (and not without resistance). Professional internet trolls, like Milo Yiannopoulos, have pursued ad hominem attacks on some of these scholars in the guise of pseudo-academic arguments, and the internet troll forces involved with the alt-right movement have taken up his call to arms against our colleagues of color in the name of white supremacy, masquerading as nationalism (but centered on issues of ethnocentrism and notions of cultural homogeneity). The threat from modern trolls is indeed as serious as encountering a monstrous trǫll in an Old Norse-Icelandic saga.

Ashva, ‘Ugly Internet Troll’ Vector Illustrations (2003-2020).

Many have argued that Donald Trump is a cyber-bullying wizard, and his supporters notoriously seem to follow his lead. This characterization marks the president as essentially the mesta trǫllgreatest troll” capable of dragon-scale destruction via the internet, which renders his wife’s campaign against online harassment profoundly paradoxical. Moreover, whether it’s demonizing undocumented immigrants, insulting the squad, or attempting to rebrand covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” rather than simply calling it the novel coronavirus, the president is infamous for his straightforwardly offensive, racially loaded and politically incorrect tweets, which inflame racial tensions and partisanship. Trump’s relentless trolling of Climate Change activist Greta Thunberg is perhaps his most opprobrious internet feud, surpassing even his decade-long spat with Rosie O’Donnell

Steve Sack, ‘Feeding the Trolls’ (2019).

While it only takes one brief glance at Trump’s Twitter account to recognize his ferocity, dedication and skill in trolling his political opponents, it is important to recognize that he also receives his fair share of troll-attacks. Perhaps as a result of observing Trump’s effective trolling, Democrats and those criticizing the president have resorted to similar tactics, and have been praised for it, especially when Trump’s statements are trafficking in bigotry or misinformation. Indeed, if the Democratic nominee means to best Trump in the general election, and thereby defeat the greatest troll, as it were, it will certainly require strength of character and no small amount of courage.

Photo by Sofya Levina. Images by Drew Angerer/Getty Images (2016).

Perhaps the most infamous subcategory of internet troll, which has come under intense scrutiny as a result of their involvement in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, is the Russian troll. The involvement of Russian trolls (and bots) has received a share of credit for Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hilary Clinton, and the president’s critics have alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, which resulted in a special investigation by Robert Mueller centered on whether there was a conspiracy (with Russia) or obstruction of justice on the part of the administration. This produced the famous Mueller Report that indicted 13 Russian nationals linked to tampering with the U.S. election. This Russian strategic operation was organized by the Internet Research Agency, which CNN describes as “a Kremlin-linked Russian troll group, [which] set up a vast network of fake American activist groups and used the stolen identities of real Americans in an attempt to wreak havoc on the U.S. political system.”

Jeffrey Koterba, Omaha World-Herald ‘Russian Trolls’ (2018).

Now in 2020, the U.S. again finds itself in yet another battle against Russian trolls and the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Russian trolls seem to be focused on antagonizing and disaffecting groups and individuals thereby turning Americans on Americans, as the Mueller Report outlines a “strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system.” Although Russian virtual propaganda and social media trolling certainly may have fanned the flames, the sad truth is the the fire was already burning. What’s worse, anyone and everyone arguing online becomes a potential Russian troll, providing scapegoats and discrediting of the hard work and dedication of many Americans calling for social, racial, environmental and economic justice, and necessary reform to meet these needs.

As the loudest and most provocative views often receive the most traction and attention, especially on social media, internet trolls—whether an operative from the Internet Research Agency or simply troubled person lashing out online—cast long shadows, effectively silencing all those softer voices and further destabilizing civil discourse.

Bryant Arnold, ‘Internet Troll Under a Bridge’ (2013).

In both medieval literature and modern times, we must fight the trolls and the horrors they bestow upon human society. While I am suggesting a sort of call to action against internet trolls and trolling, it is expressly not a call for tone-policing. Critique, even the sharpest criticism—especially of public officials and elected representatives—must be uncensored so the people may speak freely and in whatever (and whichever) language they choose, whether vulgar or polite in tone. However, I am suggesting that we consider changing our rhetorical strategy as a nation and a world.

Legendary heroes often fight trolls by matching their strength and ferocity, by fighting fire with fire, but I believe a different path might be more efficient. Perhaps it is cliché for a medievalist to suggest a hagiographical approach, but I would contend that we could learn a lesson from St. Juliana’s contest with a demon (267-558) in the Old English Juliana by Cynewulf recorded in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051). As a medieval saint might when facing a devil, I believe that it is often best (and more rhetorically effective) to match vice with virtue, anger with empathy, belligerence with amicability and hate with love in order to transform political conversations in America toward more ethical practices.

Demon attacks hermit in Smithfield Decretals, British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 113v.

This rhetorical strategy, meeting vice with virtue, is the centerpiece of the late classical Christian epic, Prudentius’s Psychomachia, often regarded as the first medieval allegory which establishes the robust tradition which follows. In the Psychomachia, demonic vices fight against saintly virtues in what amounts to a battle for the soul of humanity, a phrase which is repeatedly invoked regarding our current political moment. Although the Psychomachia frames its narrative in reductive notions of good and evil, it nevertheless argues that the strongest way to combat monstrous vices ira “wrath,” superbia “pride,” luxuria “luxury” and avaritia “greed” is with inverse behavior, in other words, the heroic virtues of patientia “patience,” humilitas “humility,” sobrietas “sobriety,” and operatio “service.”

Sobrietas defeats Luxuria, the vice is ultimately caught in the wheels of her own war-chariot and destroyed, British Library, Add MS 24199 f.20v.

Of course, we must continue the constant battle against what can seem like an endless horde of internet trolls, and it is all too tempting, and necessary at times, to get into the proverbial mud and valiantly take the fight to them in their digital lairs (usually located somewhere in the comment section) as heroes often do in saga literature and fantasy novels.

We might also note that in the Hobbit, the grey wizard Gandalf initiates and perpetuates an argument between three stone-trolls in an effort to stall and prevent the monsters from devouring Thorin’s company (ch 2: “Roast Mutton“). Gandalf’s ventriloquism mirrors the trolls‘ level of discourse, and eventually not only does their bickering delay their eating the dwarves, it causes the trolls to forget about the approaching dawn, which turns them to stone. Perhaps there is something of a serendipitous metaphor in the argument between the wizard and the trolls in the Hobbit, which suggests that in order to overcome trolls, one must beat them at their own game and hope they self-destruct.

DonatoArts, ‘Lunch with William, Tom and Bert’ (2018-2020).

Indeed, like Grettir wreaking vengeance upon the trǫllkona mikil “great troll-woman” in Grettis saga (ch. 65), it may be that sometimes the only way to respond to a troll is to retaliate in some form. But there is also another kind of strength, kinder but no less powerful. While it is often impossible to starve trolls by ignoring them, and acknowledging that no single strategy will always prove effective, it may nevertheless be that the most productive way to defeat internet trolls is through sustained civil discourse in the spirit of generosity. In other words, kill them with kindness.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)
University of Notre Dame

Texts and Translations

Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales and Stories, translation by H. P. Paull (1872).

Byock, Jesse. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford University Press (2009).

Grimm, Jakob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm’s Household Tales, translation by Margaret Hunt (1884).

Cynewulf. Juliana. In Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project, translation by Aaron K. Hostetter. Rutgers University (2007).

Margaret Armour. The Nibelungenlied. In Parentheses Publications (1999).

Mueller, Robert. Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election. Special Counsel Office (2019).

Prudentius. Psychomachia. In Prudentius, with an English translation by H.J. Thomson (1949).

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (1997).

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Allen & Unwin (1937).

Further Reading

Ashkenas, Jeremy. “Was It a 400-Pound, 14-Year-Old Hacker, or Russia? Here’s Some of the Evidence.” The New York Times (2017).

Chaganti, Seeta. “Statement Regarding ICMS Kalamazoo.” Medievalists of Color (2018).

Fahey, Richard. “Medieval Trolls: Monsters from Scandinavian Myth and Legend.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

Grendell, Alexis. “Should We Have a Right to Troll Politicians on Twitter?The Nation (2019).

Hanson, James. “Trolls and Their Impact on Social Media.” University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2018).

Jones, Brandon G. “Harvard Scientist Analyzes 6.8 Million Tweets, Finds Bernie Sanders Supporters Are NOT More Abusive.” ABC 14 News (2020).

Kim, Dorothy. “White Supremacists Have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to Reclaim the Real History.” Time (2019).

—. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (2017).

Klempka, Allison and Arielle Stimson. Anonymous Communication on the Internet and Trolling. Concordia University (2017).

Kosoff, Maya. “Why the Right’s Dark-Web Trolls Are Taking Over Youtube.” Vanity Fair (2018).

Lahut, Jake. “Joe Biden Gets Away with Yelling at Voters, and May Even Benefit from It.” Business Insider (2020).

Leigh, Kira. “Fantastic Internet Trolls and How to Fight Them.” Medium (2017).

Lewis, Simon. “Bernie Sanders to Online Trolls: Stop ‘Ugly Personal Attacks.” Reuters (2020).

Lindgren, Émelie Vangen. “Trolls in Your Comment Section and How to Fight Them.” Medium (2017).

Lomuto, Sierra. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016).

Martin, Tess. “Racism 101: Tone Policing.” Medium (2018).

McQuade, Barbara and Joyce White Vance. “These 11 Mueller Report Myth Just Won’t Die. Here’s Why They’re Wrong.” Time (2019).

Miyashiro, Adam. “Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Response to ISAS in Honolulu.” In the Middle (2017).

Noor, Poopy. “Trump’s Troll-in-Chief? Once Again, Nancy Pelosi Bites Back.” The Guardian (2019).

Perry, David. “How to Fight 8Chan Medievalism—and Why We Must.” Pacific Standard (2019).

 Mary. “Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies.” History Workshop (2019).

Ray, Alison. “The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book.British Library (2015).

Read, Bridget. “I’m Sorry, What Did Biden Say to This Voter?The Cut (2019).

Roll, Nick, “A Schism in Medieval Studies, for All to See.” Inside Higher Ed (2017).

Sarsour, Linda. “Yes, Women of Color Support Bernie Sanders. It’s Time to Stop Erasing Our Voices.” Teen Vogue (2019).

Silver, Nate. “Donald Trump is the World’s Greatest Troll.” FiveThirtyEight (2015).

Spencer, Kieth A. “There Is Hard Data That Shows ‘Bernie Bros’ Are a Myth.” Salon (2020).

Sax, David. “‘If You Fight Fire with Fire, Everyone Burns’: How to Catch a Troll Like Trump.” The Guardian (2016).

Sebenius, Alyza. “Russian Trolls Shift Strategy to Disrupt U. S. Election in 2020.” Bloomberg (2020).

Stratton, Erica. “6 Ways to Fight Trolls Instead of Starving Them.” The Airship (2014).

Vinsonhaler, Christine. “The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode.” Comitatus 47 (2016): 1-36.

Waters, Lowenna. “AOC Destroys ‘Misogynist’ Twitter Troll with One Simple Comment: ‘I Don’t Give a Damn.” Indy100 & Independent (2019).

Medieval Trolls: Monsters from Scandinavian Myth and Legend

Scott Gustafson, ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ (2020).

Trolls have a deep and murky literary history. Trolls haunt protagonists in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas. Trolls snatch gruff billygoats crossing bridges in grim fairy tales. In modern novels, trolls capture (and intend to eat) wandering dwarves and hobbits, and trolls sulk about in wizard’s dungeons, leaving a terrible stench wherever they go. Let us not forget, of course, trolls are also fluorescent-haired dolls with gems for bellybuttons.

Trolls dolls created by Thomas Dam in 1959, image of treasure trolls from ‘Troll Dolls’ (2009).

Acknowledging exceptions like the popular dolls (which were recently adapted into DreamWorks Animation movies and a television series), trolls in the modern imagination are generally represented as resembling a giant, but less human and more monstrous. Trolls are often racialized, depicted as pale, grey or green-skinned and regarded as ugly, with dim intelligence and a tendency towards evil.

Gustaf Tenggren’s book cover for his ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ (1923).

This stereotypical representation of trolls features in cult classic films such as Troll directed by John Carl Buechler (1986), Troll 2 directed by Claudio Fragasso and originally called Goblins (1990), and more recently Trollhunter (Trolljegeren) directed by André Øvredal (2010).

Troll from Claudio Fragasso’s ‘Troll 2’  (1990).

These modern representations of trolls are based on medieval literary models, especially swamp-dwelling giant-like monsters, similar to the Old Norse-Icelandic þurs “giant” which also appears in Old English literature [þyrs]. In the Old English poem Beowulf, the Grendelkin have traditionally been identified as trolls by modern critics, and Grendel is himself described as a þyrs “swamp giant” by Beowulf (426). We learn from the Old English Maxims II that a þyrs is a lurking swamp creature: þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian/ ana innan lande “a giant shall dwell in a fen, alone within the land” (42-43).

Grendl (Phil Deguara) in James Dormer’s ‘Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands’ (2016).

This description aligns directly with descriptions of Grendel, who sinnihte heold/ mistige moras “ruled the misty marshes in the perpetual night” (161-62) as angenga “a lone-wanderer” (449). Indeed the monster is characterized as a þyrs when the narrator first names him: Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,/ mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold,/ fen ond fæsten; fifelcynnes eard “The grim ghast was called Grendel, the famous mark-stepper, he who ruled the marshes, the fens and strongholds, the realm of monsterkind” (102-04).

The Stone Trolls: William, Tom and Bert (performed by Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow & William Kircher) in the Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: And Unexpected Journey’ (2012).

The Grendelkin are named giants elsewhere in Beowulf, marked with Old English terms such as eoten (112, 761, 1558, 1679), a relative cognate with the Old Norse jǫtunn [Icelandic jötunn] “giant” (commonly featured in Old Norse-Icelandic poetry and sagas), and the anglicized gigant “giant” (113, 1562, 1690), derived from the Latin gigans “giant” (notably used in the Latin Vulgate Bible (Genesis 6:4, Numbers 13:30–33, Deuteronomy 3:11, 2 Samuel 21:19). Despite the more than one hundred varying descriptions of Grendel and his mother, these Beowulf-monsters are undoubtedly giant in stature.

John Bauer, “The Princess and the Troll Sons’ (1915).

In the medieval tradition, the troll [Old Norse trǫll, Icelandic tröll, Middle High German trolle]  is a creature from Scandinavian myth and legend which features prominently in eddiac poetry and saga literature. Grettis saga, one of the sagas which most famously contains trolls, including both the þurs (two references) and trǫll (twelve references). There are multiple references to trolls as nocturnal predators (ch. 16 & 33) and a general menace (ch. 57 & 64). After Grettir encounters and outwits a þurs “giant” called Þorir (ch. 61-62), he later turns his attention toward slaying a family of trolls (ch. 64-66). In Grettis saga, the trǫllkona mikil “great troll-woman” (also simply called trǫll) attacks the hall first prompting Grettir to hunt her down in her cave (ch. 65).

John Vernon Lord, ‘Grettir’s Fight with the She-Troll’ from the ‘Grettir’s Saga’ in Icelandic Sagas v.2, The Folio Society (2002).

It is only when Grettir ventures deeper into their troll-den that he encounters a jǫtunn, who is of course her troll companion, but never explicitly named such (ch. 66). The giant-troll family that Grettir slays looms largest in the modern imagination. However, even here the categorical ambiguity between jǫtunn and trǫll highlights something fundamental about trolls in the Old Norse-Icelandic saga tradition. The range of monstrous creatures to which trǫll can apply is vast, and Sandra Alvarez notes that trǫll “could also be used to describe troublesome people, animals and even giants” in her blog “Trolls in the Middle Ages.” In Grettis saga, the term trǫll refers to the cave-dwelling monsters threatening the hall of Sandhaug and the human society within (ch. 64), but Grettir himself is earlier mistaken for a trǫll (ch. 33).

Troll (Michael Q. Schmidt) in the Dungeon in Chris Columbus’s ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001).

Moreover, in addition to trǫll referring to giant, the term can also indicate a witch, sorcerer, conjurer or any magic-user. Two Old Norse-Icelandic words for witchcraft, trǫlldómr and trǫllskap attest to the longstanding association between trǫll and magic. Moreover, in Hrólfs saga kraka the cowardly Hǫttr describes a flying monster, something akin to a dragon, as mesta trǫll “greatest troll” (ch. 35), and this creature terrorizes Hrólfr’s realm until Bǫðvar Bjarki slays the beast. Considering the semantic range for trǫll, the term appears to broadly refer to creatures monstrous, magical or both in the Old Norse-Icelandic literature.

Jared KrichevskyI, ‘I, Frankenstein designs,’ the Aaron Sims Company (2014).

Trolls can be giants. Trolls can be dragons. Trolls can be witches and warlocks. Above all, trolls are monsters. Despite this semantic ambiguity, each iteration of trǫll in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas emphasizes one major commonality—the wonder and monstrosity associated with anything or anyone deemed a troll in the extant literature from medieval Scandinavia.

Giant Troll called Isak Heartstone, created by Thomas Dambo. Photo by Jenise Jensen, Breckenridge Creative Arts (2018).

Return in a few weeks for further discussion of the evolution of trǫll in modern English, specifically in the context of the online monsters commonly known as internet trolls.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)
University of Notre Dame

Texts & Translations

Byock, Jesse. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford University Press (2009).

. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. Penguins Classics (1999).

Grimm, Jakob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm’s Household Tales, translation by Margaret Hunt (1884).

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. W. W. Norton & Company (2001).

Hostetter, Aaron K. Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project. Rutgers University (2007).

Kiernan, Kevin. The Electronic Beowulf. University of Kentucky (2015).

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Allen & Unwin (1937).

Treharne, Elaine, and Jean Abbot. Beowulf By All. Stanford University (2016).

Þórðarson, Sveinbjörn. Icelandic Saga Database (2007).

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (1997).


Further Reading

Alvarez, Sandra. Trolls in the Middle Ages.” Medievalist.net (2015).

Fahey, Richard. “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2018).

Firth, Matt. “Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – the Saga of Grettir the Strong.” The Postgrad Chronicles (2017).

Fjalldal, Magnús. “Beowulf and the Old Norse Two-Troll Analogues.” Neophilologus 97 (2013): 541–553.

Jakobsson, Ármann. The Troll Inside You: Paranormal Activity in the Medieval North. Punctum Books (2017).

Lindow, John. Trolls: An Unnatural History. Reaktion Books (2015).

Shippey, Thomas A. The Shadow-Walkers : Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous. Brepols (2005).