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The hills are dead to Minnesota’s foremost troll expert

Author Lise Lunge-Larsen tells why troll folktales are important for all us.

Lise Lunge-Larsen

Lise Lunge-Larsen has an eye for dead trolls. Last summer, she was paddling across Brule Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when she looked up and saw one. “Honestly, there was this island, and there I saw this big, dead troll! When they die of old age, you know, they turn into these tree-root things that are part stone,” she explains.

She also has an eye from a dead troll. Many years ago, when her son was a little boy swimming in Lake Superior, he spotted an unusual white rock and dove for it. It turned out to be a troll’s petrified eyeball, and Lunge-Larsen still carries it with her when she travels the state telling stories about trolls.

The Oslo-born folklorist and storyteller says that troll remains are found across Minnesota, in piles of rocks (burst trolls), gnarled tree roots (especially ancient trolls) and strange land formations (supine troll bodies). You just need to know how to look at things the right way to see them.

Lunge-Larsen grew up in an antiquarian bookstore in Norway, and first came to the United States to attend Augsburg College; she met her husband there and stayed. She has studied thousands of folk tales from around the world, written seven books, and this summer the University of Minnesota Press is reissuing her collection, “The Troll With No Heart in His Body and Other Tales of Trolls from Norway.”

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MinnPost: Are you really Minnesota’s foremost troll expert?

LISE LUNGE-LARSEN: Yuh-huh! Yep. I am. They say just should follow your passion or passion pursues you in life. When I was younger, I came over here on this scholarship and I had the idea I should be an academic. I taught ESL at St Catherine’s and got my master’s, but the trolls were always in pursuit of me. So I became a storyteller. When I tell stories, it seems like it’s always the troll stories that come out and want to be told. I can’t escape my fate.

MP: Why is the troll book coming back into print now?

LL-L: The original publisher, Houghton-Mifflin, was just going to issue it as a Kindle edition and let the book go away. But the University of Minnesota Press thought that it deserved to be in print because it’s a part of Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage, with all the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns here. And folk stories never go out of style.

MP: Why do folktales continue to enthrall us?

LL-L: It’s almost like a vacation when you travel into the world of those stories. You unfurl. And they aren’t just for kids. In fact, folktales were never intended just for children — they were the TV of the day before television existed. When the kids were awake, you’d tell some stories, and when the little kids went to bed, the stories got a little more complex, and when the bigger kids went to bed, they might get a little scarier and more serious, more adult. And there are even erotic folktales! My grandfather gave me a volume of these racy Norwegian folktales for Christmas. He was like 90! He gave me some pretty funny gifts over the years.

MP: Is Minnesota a good place to find trolls?

LL-L: Oh yes. The land has the same quality that the Scandinavian landscape has: It is alive and mysterious. In the old stories, the trolls waded from Norway to Iceland, and some of them were in the water when the sun came up, so they turned to stone, and that is how those islands off Iceland were created. And from Iceland, they just waded over to Greenland. And from there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to North America. Obviously, some of them made it. Think about it! Giants Ridge? That’s probably dead trolls. Or Sleeping Giant Peninsula in Thunder Bay? That’s a troll who was lying on his back napping when the sun came up and he turned to stone.

MP: So they are mostly up north, where you live?

LL-L: I think so. I don’t think they could handle the traffic and the noise of the metro area, and plus, it’s pretty flat down there. Trolls don’t like crowded places. There are a lot of stories about how when Sweden and Denmark got so populated, the trolls just had to go further north, because it was no noisy. In Norway, the mountains are named after the trolls they used to be. It makes the landscape alive and magical to look around and see things that once were and maybe, just maybe, still are.

MP: Betsy Bowen did the woodcuts that illustrate these stories. Did you help her see trolls?

LL-L: Oh, she does not need any help; she can see trolls just fine. When we first did the book [in the 1990s] I told some troll stories at an elementary school, and Betsy came and recorded it so she could capture my voice and gestures and the whole thing. She is amazing in her ability to capture trolls. I sent the books to a folklore expert in Norway, and he said, “Who is it that has climbed into our mountains and made away with our gold?” That’s high praise. Norwegians are very particular about their trolls.

MP: After all these years, are you a Norwegian in Minnesota or a Norwegian-Minnesotan?

LL-L: Oh, I’m a Minnesotan now. And here, I’m a better Norwegian! The things I was mediocre at doing back home, like knitting and skiing, here, people are like, Wow, you knit! You ski! Here, my talents are extraordinary. I really love living in Duluth. We used to live in the Twin Cities, and when we first drove to Duluth and came up over the hill, I felt like, “Oh, I can live here. This is where I belong.” I think it’s like Norway, with the rocky hillside and crazy wilderness out back, and facing the ocean — the lake. It’s a good place to be for a Norwegian. I just came 100 years after all the others.

MP: Norwegians are no longer the defining immigrant population in Minnesota. Do you feel any pressure to keep Norway’s stories going?

LL-L: For sure. All of our stories, from all of us immigrants, build universal cultural understanding. When Norwegians first arrived, we felt so similar to how the Somalis or Hmong felt as newcomers. There’s just nothing on earth that can teach you more about universal human values than folktales. So it’s vital that these stories be read by everyone.

I’m publishing folk tales once a week on my blog about flowers.

Almost all of our garden flowers are immigrants, too. Dandelions and buttercups were not in the U.S. when immigrants came. The crocus comes from Italy, peonies are Greek. I’m working on a chrysanthemum story from Japan. There’s a beautiful Chippewa story about the first lily of the valley. They just come from all over and they are naturally multicultural — you get the whole world in your garden.

MP: So you don’t just stick to troll stories. But you love them best?

LL-L: Yes. I just love trolls, and kids love trolls. They are mean, ugly and nasty, but they pull up what’s best in you — the only way you can beat a troll is to be opposite of them, to be as fully human as you can be. You outwit them with strength and courage and cooperation and kindness and stick-to-itivness. Troll stories show children a clear picture of what you don’t want to be. They’re pretty bad. But we kind of love them because of that.